Sales of Raspberry Pi’s single-board computers hit 640,000 in March, the second-biggest month for sales since they started selling, as consumers flocked to inexpensive ways to work and learn from home.

While some sales can be attributed to tinkering Pi-hobbyists with a lot more time to fill all of sudden, Eben Upton, the Raspberry Pi’s co-creator, told TechRepublic demand is also coming from households that have found themselves in daily battles over use of the family computer.

“It used to be sustainable to have a shared family computer, but now every family member needs to have one to work or learn,” said Upton. “Now, everyone is at home competing for the use of one computer.”

While sales of Raspberry Pi picked up steadily over the course of March, the latter end of the month is where things really gathered steam, with Upton describing the increase in demand as “turning the dial up from three to 10”, with industrial sales staying very stable and Raspberry Pi 4 volumes ramping up very quickly.

“I think what this is telling us is that we’re seeing genuine consumer use of the product. It’s not like your desktop PC – you’re not going to be able play Crysis on it – but if you want a machine you can use to edit documents, use the web, use Gmail and Office 365 and all the baseline use cases of a general purpose computer, the Raspberry Pi 4 is a product we’ve made to get over that bar.”

Upton: “Now, everyone is at home competing for the use of one computer.”
Image: Raspberry Pi Foundation

Other uses of Raspberry Pi computers have been related to the COVID-19 outbreak more directly. In Columbia, for example, efforts are underway to get ventilators running on Pi computers, which – if successful – could help address the shortage of traditional ventilator equipment in the country.

“It’s important to emphasise that no-one wants this business,” he said, “but it feels good for me, and for a lot of our people, that we can be helpful.”

Outside of ventilators, the foundation is seeing equally novel uses of its computers from people wanting to do their bit.

With the pandemic having highlighted shortages in personal protective equipment (PPE), 3D-printing manufacturers and hobbyists have been building face shields printed on plastic acetate that can be quickly assembled and delivered to hospitals, for free.

“A lot of that is Pi-driven,” Upton explained, noting that OctoPrint, which is the most popular platform for managing 3D printers, runs on Raspberry Pi.

SEE: Inside the Raspberry Pi: The story of the $35 computer that changed the world (TechRepublic cover story PDF)

When the Raspberry Pi Foundation has asked for stories about how people are using their Raspberry Pi devices to address COVID-19, one of the most common uses it saw was people showing their 3D-printed face shields, driven by a Raspberry Pi.

“And that’s just been individuals, that’s what’s inspiring – making face shields seems to be a community effort. You have people with a home printer, printing these things once a week and then going to a post office and sending them,” he said.

“Then you’ll have some people sat in a hack space receiving the parcels, cutting the acetate and the elastic, assembling them into face shields then sending them to the hospital. It’s amazing.”

Upton suggested this effort could eventually be ramped up to a “massively distributed scale”, with the benefit of open source being that, once you have a good design that works, it can be rapidly iterated.

In the long term, this could even include the ventilators themselves, he said.

“One thing we’re seeing with this is people finding a niche within which open hardware really works,” he said.

“The tantalising possibility we’ve seen in places like Colombia is that, actually, ventilators might fit into that category. Maybe not in this crisis, because hopefully this is a short shock and by the time any novel architecture has been through approvals, we’ll be out the other end.

“There are places where the open-source thing works and places where it doesn’t. I think this is proving to be an interesting crucible for that movement and a chance for it to demonstrate its value.”