Raspberry Pi with a side of AI: These powerful new boards come with NPUs

Developer board makers like 96Boards are homing in on CPUs aided by neural processing units.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Video: How to set up your Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+

The Raspberry Pi Foundation just released the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ with a zippier CPU and faster network connections, but what the hugely popular $35 board hasn't yet gained is a neural processing unit (NPU).

NPUs are helping manufacturers of lesser-known boards speed up computer-vision applications, such as image and object recognition, and offer enterprise and manufacturers a more powerful platform for building everything from smart building applications to autonomous vehicles.

96Boards, the maker of Linaro-designed open-source Arm boards, has unveiled three new computers with dedicated NPUs, including the HiKey970, the Ultra96, and the Rock960, which is also available in an enterprise edition.

The new boards have dedicated NPUs from Huawei and Rockchip. The HiKey970 ships with Huawei's Hisilicon Kirin 970 SoC, which features an NPU on top of an eight-core CPU and a 12-core GPU.

The Rock960 meanwhile comes with Rockchip's souped-up RK 3399Pro, a processor that target's Google's TensorFlow Lite framework for building AI services on iOS and Android devices.

Rockchip announced its 'AI processor' RK3399Pro in January, which uses Arm's big.LITTLE CPU architecture with a dual-core A72 and quad-core A53 Cortex processors. Its predecessor, the standard RK3399, was found in some Chromebooks.

The Rockchip 3399Pro has earned stripes with developers for its impressive performance when handling certain deep-learning models for image classification.

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As CNX-Software reported earlier this year, the Rockchip 3399Pro is claimed to outperform the NPU in Apple's A11 Bionic chip on the iPhone X.

While they share some physical resemblance to the Raspberry Pi, the NPU-enhanced developer boards are aimed at a different market.

The Huawei-based HiKey 970 has been fine-tuned so developers can focus on building smarter apps rather than performance enhancements and it's marketed for smart-city applications, autonomous vehicles and robotics.

96Boards hasn't released pricing or availability details yet. However, the HiKey960 board based on a Huawei Kirin 960 octa-core Arm processor starts at $240. It featured similar specs with 32GB of on-board storage and an Arm Mali GPU with 3GB RAM.


The Huawei-based HiKey 970 is marketed for smart-city applications, autonomous vehicles, and robotics.

Image: 96Boards

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