Photo: iStock
Photo: iStock

DIY electronics are not just for serious nerds

In a world dominated by technology, DIY electronics is a serious hobby for the next generation

Neil Gaiman was on to something when he came up with Technical Boy as one of the upstart deities in his best-selling American Gods. After all, we worship innovation, assign near-divine status to Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, and have pretty much adopted technology as a religion. Which makes it easy to see the appeal of DIY electronics as a hobby: it’s contemporary, you pick up some in-demand skills, and there’s a thriving community to help you get started. Drones, robots that serve beer, window blinds that close when it’s too sunny, torrent downloaders that work while you sleep—you name it and there’s someone building it at home from off-the-shelf parts.

Technically minded readers old enough to remember the rotary-phone era might recall what hobby electronics meant back then: kits for simple gadgets (transistor radios were a favourite), tearing down the family “two-in-one" to get your hands on some obscure component, scrounging around a chor bazaar, and braving soldering iron burns. Journalist Francis D’Sa, a self-described inveterate tinkerer, is still loyal to the old school. As he explains, “There’s nothing as much fun as building something from the ground-up."

Today, you can head over to one of the many electronics and robotics stores online like Robu.in, Element14.com, KitsNSpares.com, and CrazyPi.com (for the digital electronics enthusiasts); HobbyElectronics.in and Bharathielectronics.in (for analogue kits); and even Flipkart and Amazon. Another favourite is AliExpress.com, although expect long shipping times.

With the shift towards digital electronics, DIY electronics now sees a lot of overlap with the gadget and computer worlds. The emergence of modular, computer-based platforms like Raspberry Pi and Arduino means that a lot of the gadgets you see online can be replicated at home—although you might need programming skills for the advanced stuff.

DIY electronics enthusiasts at The Workshop in Bengaluru. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint
DIY electronics enthusiasts at The Workshop in Bengaluru. Photo: Ramegowda Bopaiah/Mint

Digital trumps analogue

Quick guess on what’s popular these days? Drones, which shouldn’t really come as a surprise. Other popular projects include robotics and home automation. All this is made possible by platforms like Raspberry Pi and Arduino. The Raspberry Pi is a small, general-purpose digital computer, its innards not that much different from a mobile phone. It runs a Linux-based Operating System, and you can plug in various sensors and accessories, and even install applications. Arduino is a microcontroller board (a set of integrated circuits on a board which usually don’t require other hardware to function and are suited for repetitive tasks) known for its simplicity. Several Indian brands also sell their own microcontroller boards (based on the Intel 8051 chip).

The popularity of these affordable digital platforms dovetails with the emergence of a new app-hungry, digital-first culture. But though digital electronics might be the future, the hobbyist can’t ignore the fundamentals of electronics. When you start building projects that interact with the everyday world (say a rain water sensor, or a solar-charging dock), the principles of physics and electronics are essential.

Pilot Vibhav Tekchand, who’s been a hobbyist ever since as a child he was introduced to the world of transistors and resistors by a neighbour, insists that the basics are a part of mastering any craft, though he does admit that digital kits might hold more appeal: “The learning curve is not as steep, and you can do a lot more in less time," he says.

An online search for Raspberry Pi or Arduino projects will show you what all can be done: We mentioned drones, robots, and home automation, but given that you’re dealing with what essentially is a computer, the sky is the limit; people have built Wi-Fi routers, retro game arcades and even multi-room audio streamers. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

Getting started

According to Jayesh Jain, who runs Robu.in, today’s modular platforms mean you can focus more on what you want your gadget to do and less on the construction part, and don’t even need much DIY expertise. It’s unlikely that you’d need to learn soldering for some of the most common Raspberry Pi projects. He recommends this as a great hobby for children, even those as young as 10. Craig D’Mello, who runs The Workshop, a makerspace in Bengaluru, says they’ve had families come in to work together on projects. “There’s nothing like seeing a nine-year-old write a program to make you feel obsolete," he laughs. Ishaan Rastogi, curator at Delhi makerspace Maker’s Asylum, concurs: “Designers, artists, techies, teachers, and students, everyone wants to learn how to incorporate electronics into their work." He adds that with many schools also encouraging robotics and hackathons, DIY electronics could help children get a head start.

It’s also not expensive to get started. Varun Bansal of HobbyElectronics.in says that with basic analogue kits (such as 30-in-one breadboard kits that combine several components, which can be reused to carry out simple projects) that cost a few hundred rupees, and complex digital kits available for a few thousand (a Raspberry Pi with common accessories costs under 4,000), it is a very accessible hobby.

A sense of community

But like anything that’s new, it can be a bit intimidating to get started. That’s where makerspaces, which function as a one-stop-shop for the DIY community, come into the picture. According to D’Mello, makerspaces not only foster a sense of community, but also put you on the fast track to boosting your skills—you get to meet fellow hobbyists and perhaps even attend courses. Makerspaces are also a boon if you want to integrate quite a few different disciplines together. For example, you might build a Raspberry Pi media player at home, but a makerspace could offer know-how to create a wooden case for it, and you might make friends who help you out with the programming skills required for advanced projects.

If you’ve got an idea for the next revolutionary gadget, why not build a prototype first? There are start-ups that were kicking around with home-brew electronics at makerspaces before they hit the big league. Maker’s Asylum’s STEAM Fabrikarium hackathon, held in Mumbai in February, saw teams working on several innovations for people with disabilities. One of these, a DIY prosthetic socket, has been shortlisted for the Robotics Module Challenge of the Hackaday Robotics Prize (set up to reward socially relevant open-source software projects). Meanwhile, for Brahm Works, a Bengaluru-based product development consultancy, the journey started three years ago, when they commercialized a 3D printer they’d created at The Workshop. So, jump in and get your hands dirty. You never know where it could lead.

Make your own Raspberry Pi Media Player

Handheld gaming consoles or security systems with face recognition might seem pretty exciting but those are better left for when you’ve got more experience. If you have a massive hoard of music and movies but no smart TV, why not build a media player for your TV?

Time required: 2 hours

Parts you’ll need:

Raspberry Pi Model B: 2,949, from Robu.in
Power supply adapter: 249, from Robu.in
Case for Raspberry Pi: 199, from Robu.in
HDMI cable (5ft/1.5m): 199, from Flipkart.com
16GB microSD card: 499, from Amazon.in

Optional parts:

FLIRC IR remote (for older TVs that don’t support HDMI-CEC remote control): $22.95, around 1,500, from Amazon.com

Software:

LibreElec: free (from Libreelec.tv)
Media codecs: £2.40, around 220, from Raspberrypi.com

You’ll also need:

A laptop and a working internet connection to download and install the software, as well as a USB hard drive for your music and movie library.

Make it!

The actual hardware setup takes a few minutes, while you might need a couple of hours to install the OS and set it up the way you want to. If you need help, a earch will point you to several step-by-step guides such as the one on LifeHacker.com.

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