The Boreatton Scouts meet a Raspberry Pi

Liz: A little while ago, we had an email from Alan Herbert, who helps run the Boreatton Scout troop. The troop had been hoping to get their hands on a Raspberry Pi but hadn’t been lucky with the first batch. They’re a pretty special troop, who have a real affinity with things technological; they’ve been busy winning robotics prizes and building rockets, and we decided they were just the sort of kids we wanted to see get an early start with the Raspberry Pi. We warned them that the software stack isn’t complete yet, and that there would be bugs in there which are being ironed out in time for the educational release – in particular, we’re working on X drivers at the moment to speed up scrolling and so on, which can make things aggravatingly slow for some, but Alan assured us that they’d be able to work around any problems.

The scouts have had their Raspi for a just under a month now: I asked Alan if he’d write something for us about how they’ve been getting on, and he’s really gone to town on it. An enormous thank you to Alan and all the scouts – we hope to feature more of what they’ve been up to with the Raspberry Pi as they develop their mind-control robot project. (And be sure to read down to the end, where there’s some video from some of the scouts on what they’ve been doing.)

The Boreatton Scouts Engineering and Science Team

My scout troop likes doing science projects and competitions – I think most kids do if they have an enthusiastic leader or teacher – and they take part in the First Lego League robotics competition. This year they did well and won their Regional Finals at Manchester University, and went on to win the National Finals Robot Design Prize at Loughborough University. We were chosen as one of the teams to represent the UK at the European Open Championships in Germany in June.  Part of the competition is a research project, and the scouts have been busy experimenting in ways to preserve raspberries (see the connection coming!), so my house is filling up with bottles of gases for controlled atmosphere packaging, raspberries pickling in Coca-Cola and generally lots of raspberries in various states of decay! In the international competitions we want to show off some cool Lego-robotics ideas in our base camp, and we started planning what to do just as the Raspberry Pi was launched. Perfect! Especially as, although we missed the front of the queue to buy one, Liz at the Raspberry Pi Foundation liked our idea and sent us one of the very first!

So how have we got on? It’s great! The scouts love it and are very proud to be part of the community that is helping test and develop the Pi.

With all our techy projects, it is important to have a goal and to know what we want to do. That’s easy – we want a mind-controlled Lego NXT robot that is portable and independent of big bulky wired computers, and the Raspberry Pi looks just the job. We want it to be fun too – if it’s a computer then it must have some good games too. That’s what computers are for, right?

So what do we need from the Pi? It needs to do the basic computer things – internet, games, PowerPoint, more games…and it needs to look cool!

Putting it together

First things first – we made a Lego case! It is our Raspberry Pi now!  The case is quite easy: the Pi fits into seven splots by eleven splots, and to allow for the the USB and LAN ports we need it to be three bricks high.

The Boreatton Scouts’ custom-built Lego Raspberry Pi case

The SD card operating system download now has good detailed instructions. We bought a cheap Sony 8Gb SD card from Maplin, and had no problems once we remembered to resize the partitions after copying the image. We decided to use a old BlackBerry 700mA charger; an mini-USB, light-up keyboard; and a mini light-up mouse; all connected to a newish LCD TV through HDMI. Everything worked right out of the box (our new Lego box that is!). Wired LAN worked right away, and we were on the internet.

Because the software is still in development, it is very slow at the moment! You need patience when browsing in LXDE windows through Midori. I guess it is important to realise what you are trying to do with the Pi, and it you want a netbook or a laptop – that’s not the Pi. But you do need to be able to connect to the internet, and we needed to be away from the wired LAN which is in a room that we can’t devote to the scouts. This is where we ran into problems – the nano-usb WiFi dongles didn’t have drivers available that I could find in Debian, and nor did the full size D-link 54G dongle, so we took the tiny WiFi dongle back to Maplins and exchanged for a Netgear N150 full sized dongle that had been shown to work.

Not for me! Everything worked as per the instructions on the Raspberry Pi website up to the point where it is supposed to connect. This is now well documented as a USB power related issue, and lead eventually to trying a range of power supplies and hub combinations. In the end we found that cheap powered USB travel hubs (the ones that say power port available in case your devices need extra power) try to take power from the hub, and that WiFi and Bluetooth dongles seem to need more than the 150mA that is enough to trip the polyfuses protecting the board at the USB ports. You need a hub that does not connect unless it is powered. I also got quite adept at whipping the lid off the case and checking voltage on the board. The BlackBerry charger seems to deliver slightly low voltage, the iPad charger with a USB to micro-usb (BlackBerry) cable delivers too much voltage (5.3V). So does my Maplin external laptop battery. Quite frustrating.

In the end I gave up messing with random chargers and hub combinations and got a digital bench power supply (cheaper than the cost of petrol driving back and forth to Maplin, who, while not necessarily offering the cheapest price or most comprehensive range, were very helpful and allowed me try and exchange any of the peripherals if they didn’t work). That delivers 5.07V which drops a bit by the time it arrives at the test point. I use an old Belkin powered four-port hub that is not connected to the USB 5V line for WiFi or Bluetooth, and a cheap travel hub for keyboard and mouse. We generally have to boot the Raspberry Pi first then plug in the travel hub. There are still issues, and in particular, the Pi likes me to restart on average 3.14 times before booting up with WiFi working, but at least I can always get up and running now.

Introducing BERT5e, the Boreatton Scouts’ prize-winning robot

We do want to be free of heavy accessories, so for going to our Lego competition we have bought an OPTOMA PK320 pico projector that works great from batteries or mains, and takes AV out or HDMI (although the HDMI port is very close to the mains plug, and I have to run off batteries if using my HDMI-mini-HDMI adaptor on the projector). It will be nice to sort our battery power for the Raspberry Pi and its hubs in due course, but for now we run with the bench power supply and the powered hub. I guess I should get the scouts to make up a little regulator circuit to see what happens when we try to run from four AA batteries…

As for drivers, the Debian wiki gives pretty good instructions and I found that the and gave clear instructions that worked for the Netgear N150 WiFi dongle (Atheros chipset, also my WiFi is not secured so I needed to give the essid name directly in the configuration file rather than using a WEP configuration file – the Debian wiki has more general instructions than the ones on the forum links) and for an Abe UB22S Bluetooth dongle. We use the ALSA drivers and the modprobe command sudo modprobe snd-bcm2835 (searched for sound on the forum). Video works through VLC ( but with rather odd colours (this is a known issue for the old Debian “squeeze” image).

We can also get the Raspberry Pi to drive the Lego robot through nxt-python (Hurrah!) gives instructions to get the source and run from the Python IDE in LXDE. We ran one of the demo examples and BERT5e obligingly drove forward 3cm! One small step for BERT5e, and then we stopped for the day so as to end on a win!

Last but not least, we have the Quake III demo working.

Some of it works, some of the time – just not all of it works all of the time

Actually, with the above setup, we can get all of it to work, just not all of it at once – it is still not happy at having WiFi, Bluetooth, mouse and keyboard all together… [Liz: I’m going to butt in here, scouts, and suggest you replace the backlit mouse and keyboard with something that requires less power, and see how you get on with that setup.] I’ve parked that issue for now as we can set it up to do whatever we want now and just reboot when we want to change the setup. Hopefully that will be sorted out by the Educational release. Our next target is to get Puzzlebox Brainstorms. This works well from our laptops with an Emotiv EEG headset, and the Brainstorms software is written in Python. We probably need to get a NeuroSky EEG headset though as the Emotiv drivers are commercial and not yet available for Linux.

The scouting movement has really come on since I (Liz) was a girl, when it was gender-segregated, and, for my Girl Guides troop, all about making tea, washing up properly (I had the badge and everything) and learning what amounted to basic nursing skills. These scouts get to go mud-rafting, prepare pheasants for cooking, shoot bows and arrows, and go mountaineering. I think I was born a quarter of a century too early.

But finally, I can leave the scouts to just have a play on their Pi and be confident that they will be able to do things and explore. I do not know Scratch, but they have seen it at school and very quickly made some programs to chase a raspberry fish around the screen (you always lose, but can run and hide in the corners for a while); and a smiley face maze game where you have to hide from Pac-Man-type monsters that patrol their corners of the maze. They can all, of course, beat my attempts at Quake III.

A couple of them came across last Sunday to make an electric pickup for their guitar (a piezoelectric transducer disk for 99p), and to see what they could do on the Raspberry Pi. They had to be dragged away from the game they had made, and were busy changing and improving it as their parents finally prized them away from it – that’s what it’s about isn’t it!

The scouts’ games are pretty basic compared to downloaded games and anyone else would get bored with them in no time at all, but it is completely different when it is your game that you’ve written yourself, or a game your mate has written. The fun is in planning how to make it better and problem-solving to get the code to do that. GUI programming languages like SCRATCH and the Lego robotics NXT-G mean that my scouts can get to that point and enjoy developing something that is working straight away. They could do that on any computer, and it is a little bit intangible exactly what makes the Raspberry Pi so much cooler than a laptop. But when you can see the board and put it in your pocket it seems much more real. With the Pi they can have their own computer that will be able to go anywhere and it doesn’t matter if they mess things up – they can recreate the whole system by recopying the SD card. Developing the operating system and installing hardware is, for them, more like getting apps from the App Store than upgrading Windows. They will be able to share that with each other in the same way as they recommend new apps to each other. And they like the idea that when they have one each (they all want one each and several are in the queue already) they can just swap SD cards and will have recreated their computer with all their projects.

The initial development release of the Raspberry Pi has had some frustrations as the software and hardware gets sorted out, but that is part of the fun of this stage of the Pi. The scouts can see what I am doing to get it working (with the help of everyone on the troubleshooting forum!) and enjoy the small wins as we make progress.

Should everyone have a slice of the Pi?

How will the Raspberry Pi work for other groups? Obviously, I have a great group of scouts who win national STEM competitions and are a pretty unique bunch, but what makes them succeed? They come from a decent state school and are an ordinary mix of 10-14 year olds. They are not selected in any way other than wanting to join the team, so it’s not just for ‘gifted and talented’ kids. But the leaders enjoy science projects and we generally find that it is very easy to enthuse the scouts at everything that we are enthusiastic about ourselves. They are doing it in their own time and are having fun and not ‘being taught’.  They have learned that if they put in the effort they can do really well at whatever they are doing, and now that they know they can succeed, that enthusiasm and confidence means they usually do! I think that formula will work for most groups of kids if they find an enthusiastic teacher or leader. They will be able to do all sorts of great things with a Raspberry Pi, and the price means that once they are widely available, it will be cheap enough for practically any group to get involved – just check out the Projects and Collaboration Forum.

As for the teacher/leader, you do not need to be a computing expert. You need to be reasonably computer literate at this stage obviously, but the Raspberry Pi Forum works well and there are plenty of people out there who will help you through getting to know Linux. The wider Debian community has produced a lot of walk-through instructions to do most things. I think the main requirement is to have some long term objective of what you want to do as a class/group and to want to do it!


Hear from the scouts themselves, and see the BERT5e the robot in action, as well as a game Doc has written in Scratch on the Raspberry Pi. The scouts here are Matt Farrow, Matty (Doc) Smith, Isabelle (Biz) Herbert and Ben Thomas.


killor avatar

Respecting all previously published,
I think this, it is a good article and a great use of the RPI …
And the LEGO CASE is great!
Congratulations kids!

Mjiig avatar

Ugh I would have loved to be in a group like that 5 years ago… I’d love to be in one now for that matter.
Since you mentioned it, where abouts is the X driver development happening, I can’t see anything about it and I’d like to follow along.

Matthew Jones avatar

You can be a part of a group like that, Become a leader! I have been involved in scouting for 32 years (with 4 years off round A levels and Uni).

As a leader you get to do all the cool stuff as well as the kids and working with the kids is a great reward in itself


jbeale avatar

Wow, it is great to read about this. I wish my scouting group as a kid had been more like that one!

scep avatar

This is the best thing I have read for ages. Ta!

RorschachUK avatar

Blimey, when I was a Scout 30 years ago we used to get badges for going outside into the sunshine and woods and leaving the micros and consoles indoors for a bit, though I’m fully aware times have irrevocably changed and that the next gen of digital natives will not even understand some of our outdated analogue concepts like a ‘book’ made of leaves of compressed cellulose ‘paper’ imprinted with ink made from crushed beetles, sewn together at the ends. Not denigrating the Boreatton boys, just recognising the times they are a’changing and recognising that things are definitely different now. Actually now I’m in my 40s after many years as a professional programmer I’m finally getting interested in hardware, from Gadgeteer kit which simplifies all the connections so you don’t need to worry about designing circuitry, to Arduino kit which requires a bit of circuitry knowledge even if it’s pretty much just voltage=current times resistance. I can almost scarcely imagine there’s really any animosity between Arduino advocates and Pi-men, since the Arduino Uno is about £17 UK on its own, it would have to be a poor, scruffy, dishevelled, desolate UK electronics tinkerer who couldn’t afford both. Oh, plus a pound for the IDE cable that’s at the right 0.1″ spacing to plug into the Pi’s GPIO pins.

liz avatar

These guys are pretty stupefyingly outdoorsy too – didn’t you notice the references to mud rafting, mountaineering, archery and gutting pheasants? It’s not *all* hacking for today’s digital natives, equipped as they are with log rafts, pheasant-feather head dresses and bows and arrows.

Alan avatar

Just to reassure you that we really are a scout troop! We do all the outdoorsy stuff too! We are near the Welsh Borders so we go mountain walking in Snowdonia regularly as you can see above and caving down in South Wales – we went exploring OFD this term. We have a marching Drum Corps (who are actually very good and the only Drum Corps in Shropshire – here they are raising money for ‘Help for Heros’ ) and our target shooting activity club win national prizes for small bore rifle target shooting (which is the oldest scouting competition) and archery. And we are based in woods at PGL Boreatton Park so we are out in the woods each week this term. We are building a Jubilee Beacon in a few weeks (burning things is an important part of our programme!). But we like the science based stuff too :) It has helped us discover potato canon and really good smoke bomb chemistry!

liz avatar

For one, brief, beautiful moment, I misread that as “Jubilee Bacon”.

Alan avatar

Bacon is good too!

Maxime avatar

woa, as a leader, I can barely build soapboxes with them.
I am really, trully, deeply, completly, ILackVocabulary impressed by your troup !

Paul Johnson avatar

I remember the constant encouragement of all concerned to get us off our Spectrums and into the great outdoors as a kid.

I imagine the chap in our village who had an orchard would have rather we’d stayed indoors, since all we did was go “oggy raiding”, which really is a splendid term for apple theft.

roli avatar

This was a nice read!

I just got my pi today and was playing with it a few minutes ago. I didn’t try the wifi yet, just some basics. I used a cheap canyon powered USB hub (with 200mAh power supply) to run it and it seemed to run the Pi ok. It booted, started the x server, keyboard and mouse were working, wifi dongle got power (as mentioned, I didn’t try to connect yet).

I did have one problem – with the keyboard (this one: ). If this keyboard was plugged it, the pi wouldn’t boot – I just got a sync error and a kernel panic. If I plugged the keyboard when the pi was already running, everything just froze and that was it. It is sad actually. I would really like to get this keyboard running. It is a bit unstandard since it is 85 keys but still. all other computers had no problems with it.

Allen D Heberling avatar

Hello Alan,
Thanks for sharing the experiences you and your scout troop are having with Raspberry Pi. I enjoyed hearing about the successes and the challenges the scouts are having with the Raspberry Pi. I hope you will continue to provide regular updates as the scouts begin to integrate the Raspberry Pi with their robot. Again thanks for sharing.
Best regards,
Allen H.

Alan avatar

Absolutely – that’s why we do it! It’s been great!

Alan avatar

oops – that was meant to reply to Matthew Jones comment above, but hey it scans well with many of the other posts – thanks for all the positive feedback

gregd99 avatar

I don’t want t rain on your parade as it looks like you are doing some fantastic things but…..

be aware that the pi will be static sensitive and a plastic case could potentially result in some zaps to the board. How likely? don’t know. There will be some esd experts out there that will know.

I will pass on the link to the leader of our scout group.

Have fun with your pi!

jbeale avatar

I think the lego case makes little difference. The R-Pi was tested for ESD sensitivity for the CE-mark, and it passed. You can build up a static charge on insulators, but the charge on your body from walking across a carpet is much larger than what the surface of a small lego box would carry.

liz avatar

You beat me to it. A Lego case will not cause board-zapping static, so scouts everywhere can relax.

gregd99 avatar

I said someone would know better than me:-)

btw our scout group leader in Sydney was impressed!

mahjongg avatar

Ah….., this reminds me of the time I was a scoutmaster for a group of (Dutch) “Kabouters”, I guess you would call tem “brownies”, and I got them all to assemble a simple electronic “siren” with a piezo “speaker”, and a LED blinking in the rithem of the siren. good times, now alas long in the past.

I also remember the “technical scouting events” known as “jamborees on the air” or JOTA’s with HAM radio operators coming to our “blockhut” to show their hobby, and contact other scouts around the world.

I have one remark, if there is one small “problem” in the R-PI’s schematic, I guess it is that the USB’s polyfuses are under-dimensioned. In fact they should only “trip” for the kinds of currents that threaten to burn up traces on the R-PI.
A lot of problems can be traced back to keyboards overloading the 140mA polyfuse.
Lets face it, 140mA is simply not enough, when trying to connect keyboard with a built in hub, or led backlighting, or (always problematic on a Linux systems even without power problems) a WiFi dongle. There would have been a lot fewer problems with USB equipment if the fuses would have been dimensioned to trip at say 500mA, lets not forget that even below their tripping point, the polyfuses do present a measurable resistance, and thus a voltage drop.

plugwash avatar

I’m guessing the intention was to stop a device that drew too much current from tripping the main polyfuse and resetting the complete system.

Robert_M avatar

Great report on a Pi in the wild!

I admit that the EEG headset sent me off on a search tangent, though…

lobster avatar

I can imagine this geek scout group, creating woodland and mountain projects. I was especially encouraged by the plans for a mind controlled robot. Imagine for example being able to access scouting knowledge base in the wilderness. Don’t leave home without raspberries.

Jay Bhagat avatar

You need to fix that url of the Puzzlebox Brainstorms. No www.

liz avatar

Thanks – good spot.

Semtex avatar

Fantastic article. This is what it’s all about. Great job Alan and all the kids.
But that Lego case is awesome. Do you think you could publish the list of bricks you used to build it please? A Lego store just opened near me and they sell individual pieces :-)
Many thanks.

Boreatton Scouts avatar

That’s Biz’s case! Perhaps it would make a nice little article for the MagPi? I’ll see if I can get her to write one! (…might be trickier getting written words out of her than it was getting the case built!) In the meantime, the case is quite straightforward and we just built it from x-by-1 splot wall bricks and flat bits for the top. It has four smooth-topped flat pieces in each corner inside to hold the board clear of the floor and not end up with the Pi balanced on solder points (it is not held rigid in the case and is currently free to wobble when the connectors are pushed in and out – my thought was that we might use some epoxy putty to make a close fitting mount inside and glue the case together, but for now its just the lego and just pushed together)
The logo is tricky to get looking neat and central, and it is held in place with one of the littlest round pieces that is basically a single flat splot… (Hmmm… It’s quite tricky to describe in words – I really should get Biz to do a photo article like the lego build guides shouldn’t I)

liz avatar

If Biz would like to do a series of photo instructions or something similar, we’d be very happy to publish it here, too, ‘cos we think it’s great. :)

Keith Adley avatar

Brilliant article, I think this is just the sort of thing that the Foundation was trying to achieve. A great bunch of kids with an inspirational leader – there is hope for the future!

wombat avatar

Why does the image of the Goodies and in particular Bill Oddy as a scout keep poping into my mind.

Davespice avatar

This is so cool. Interesting fact for you, my sister was the very first female Sea Scout in Cornwall (and probably all of the UK). She made patrol leader before I did… I was a bit immature back then though =)

gunter123 avatar

Did you mean LXDE rather than XLDE!? ;)

Boreatton Scouts avatar

Oops :)

liz avatar

Double oops – I should have caught that. Thank you; it’s fixed now!

Clifford avatar

I am wondering why you might not have simply used a USB-A to USB-Micro cable from the powered hub to power RPi. Could the hub not act both as a hub and a PSU? That’s how I was planning to power it.

Boreatton Scouts avatar

That could be neat! We ended up with the set up we are using through a rather trial and error approach, with some of the issues being associated with cheap hubs not managing power properly, and some associated with software still being sorted out (e.g. on the troubleshooting forum there is discussion about problems with low speed and high speed devices sharing a USB port on the Pi, and there is a fix for that now, but we haven’t used that yet. I decided that it was working and that I’d wait until things were a bit more stable before changing to a neater setup.
The potential problem with powering from the powered hub is whether the hub can carry enough power. The RPi was specified as wanting 700mA or more which is more than the USB standard and may be more than the hub wants to give. However, in practice, with my USB devices on powered hubs, I’ve can’t remember having seen the Pi needing more than 500mA so it may well work the way you plan! :) Otherwise you may need to use two of the hub ports to twin to the microUSB on the Pi. (hmmm…. I think I’ll stay as I am for a while :) )

Huntereb avatar

Still waiting for an opening for me to purchase. The Ebay prices are unbelievable for this thing!

I will also DEFINITELY be making a Lego case for mine!

TheMonkeyKing avatar

This is good news and really good timing. Especially since Heathkit Educational Services are closing their doors.

Pithonica avatar

Has anyone identified 100% self-powered hub models that reliably deliver access to a USB WIFI and a USB Hard Drive when the rasPi boots?

Pithonica avatar

Also would removing the internal hub (i.e. converting Model B into a Model A) help any?

Jamie Abbott avatar

A great inspirational post Alan!

As an Explorer Scout Leader (14-18year olds) in Cambridgeshire it’s great to see what fantastic stuff Scouts get up to across the country. I’ve been thinking about getting in touch with the Cambridge Maker Space to see if they could host an evening, or a series of evening with us to get the young people (hate that phrase!) kids hands on with some tinkering.

I’ve only recently got into hacking about with Arduino, (which I know at least one of our Explorers is into) and not being a Linux guy I’m interested in the RPi as kind of a educational exercise for myself.

I really wouldn’t feel comfortable running such evenings with the Explorers, tho’ it’d be nice to have a change in the programme- the DofE award takes up a fair bit of time and sometimes it’s difficult to come up with new and exciting ‘balanced’ programme ideas. Linking up with groups such as Maker Spaces would hopefully enable the kids to get a lot more out of it than if us (not overly techy) leaders where to be in charge!


Jamie Abbott avatar

Apologies for the typos!

Alan avatar

Yes, I think it would be tricky to do as a regular troop night as it takes some time to do things and only two or three can be at each set of kit so could quickly get expensive. It works well as an activity club – there are just the 10 that are keen and want to devote extra time to the robotics club, and doing the FLL competition means that we effectively have 4 or 5 bases to divide them around – robot construction, robot programming for the competition with NXT-G, research project, presentation, and of course cool geeky stuff with the RPi. The leaders can hover amongst the different groups and make sure they don’t get stuck and the scouts swap around the different areas we need to cover!
For troop nights we’ve done simpler cheaper science based projects such as potato organs, throwie LED things, LED pumpkin eyes, potato cannon and vortex cannon…

Óscar Sarabando avatar

It’s been a while since I’ve planned starting a science and engineering club locally for kids, but I’ve always wandered what would be the best age range; how old are your kids that play around with the RaspberryPi?

Alan avatar

The scouts are 10-14 yr olds and the current team is made up of scouts 11-13 split across three school years.

Óscar Sarabando avatar

I forgot to give you my best respect and admiration for what you’re doing. I believe you’re giving the kids the knowledge and means to succeed in life being better persons. I can only hope to be able to do the same.

John U avatar

I think the splot should become the SI unit of measurement for Lego.

Paulglaubitz avatar

Good Luck at the FLL European Open!

Several of my team (Moderately Confused) are waiting for our R Pi. It should get here just after Boy Scout Camp.

Moderately Confused Coach

Davis Foster avatar

Really nice job, guys! I can’t wait to see what you do once you get to highschool (or whatever the pre-university level is in England)!

I especially liked your method of organizing the cables on the lego robot, with beams and axels to route them all and keep them together. I used to do the same exact thing with my Lego robots, and its almost disturbing how 2 groups on opposite sides of the pond (as with a 5-6 year age difference) can end up with the same solution even without contact. Made me remember the good ol’ days :D

Ian Norm avatar

Great write up.
I help run a local Cubs group (I’m a ACSL). My Pi is on order so will hopefully get it in a few weeks. I’ve been toying with the idea of running a session with the Cubs – basically how to put a system together around the Pi that will enable the Cubs to video chat or IM another Cub group. As a starter this will teach them of the basic components of a computer. We’ll have to see how it goes to see if there are any follow-up projects.

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