Headless Raspberry Pi Setup

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Contributors: ShawnHymel
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Introduction

A “headless” computer is one that operates without a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. The Raspberry Pi works great as an inexpensive computer that can help people learn to program and create fun, interesting projects (without many repercussions if you break something–just reflash the SD card!). The one downside is that as a computer (as opposed to a microcontroller), it requires a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to work, which can quickly increase the costs of acquiring the necessary components.

Raspberry Pi setup with a monitor, keyboard, and mouse

To use a Raspberry Pi, you often need a monitor, keyboard, and mouse

The Raspberry Pi can be extremely useful for projects that do not require a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. The downside is that setting up the Pi to connect to the Internet, expand the filesystem, and run code generally requires these computer accessories.

Headless Raspberry Pi project using just an LED

An example of a simple headless Raspberry Pi project: Twitter Monitor

This tutorial will show you three different ways you can configure your Raspberry Pi without the need for a monitor, keyboard, or mouse.

  • Serial Terminal - This requires extra hardware in the form of a serial-to-USB adapter, but it is by far the most robust way to connect, as you are not relying on any network setup.
  • Ethernet with Static IP Address - This method requires a Linux operating system to change some files on the Raspberry Pi image. You can give the Raspberry Pi a static IP address and then use an Ethernet cable (or WiFi) to log in.
  • WiFi with DHCP - You will need to have access to your router to find your Raspberry Pi’s IP address in order to log in via SSH. As a result, this may not be the best option in school or office environments.

Certainly, there are more ways to connect to the Raspberry Pi. These show three common approaches to get you started interacting with a headless operating system on the Pi.

Required Materials

To follow along with this tutorial, you will need a Raspberry Pi, power supply, and micro SD card. Note that no monitor, keyboard, or mouse is required! Any extra hardware needed will be listed in the specific section.

Note: The Raspberry Pi Zero W should also work with this tutorial, if you want a smaller option for your project.

Suggested Reading

If you aren’t familiar with the following concepts, we recommend checking out these tutorials before continuing.

Serial Terminal Basics

This tutorial will show you how to communicate with your serial devices using a variety of terminal emulator applications.

Raspberry Pi 3 Starter Kit Hookup Guide

Guide for getting going with the Raspberry Pi 3 Model B and Raspberry Pi 3 Model B+ starter kit.

Getting Started with the Raspberry Pi Zero Wireless

Learn how to setup, configure and use the smallest Raspberry Pi yet, the Raspberry Pi Zero - Wireless.

Flashing the OS

The Raspberry Pi has several options available for operating systems. It’s often recommended that beginners start with NOOBS, as that walks the user through the necessary steps of installing an operating system. However, it usually requires a monitor to see the selection process, so we’ll be creating an image of Raspbian manually. Additionally, we’ll be using Raspbian Lite, which saves us space and time by not including the desktop (i.e. the graphical interface). Because we’re creating a headless image, we’ll be doing everything through the command line!

To start, download the latest version of Raspbian Lite.

Download Latest Version of Raspbian Lite

Note: This tutorial was created with Raspbian Stretch Lite (version: March 2018). Using a different version may require performing different steps than what's shown in this tutorial. If you would like to download the March 2018 version of Raspbian Lite, it can be found below.

Raspbian Stretch (version: March 2018) Download (ZIP)

Unzip the .zip file using your program of choice. You should have a 2018-03-13-raspbian-stretch-lite.img file in a new folder.

To flash the image to your SD card, we recommend the program Etcher. Download and install it. Plug your SD card into your computer (using a microSD USB Reader if necessary), and run Etcher. It will walk you through selecting the OS image file, selecting your SD card reader, and then flashing it.

Using Etcher to flash an SD card

Once that’s done, you will need to make a choice: how do you want to interact with your Raspberry Pi? Without a monitor, keyboard, and mouse, you have a few choices:

Serial Terminal

If you would like to access your Raspberry Pi using the least amount of software work, you will need some extra hardware. Two of the pins on the Raspberry Pi offer transmit and receive data for serial communication. With a small change to a file on the boot sector of the SD card, a command line terminal will be broadcast over this serial line, and you can enter commands to control Linux, write programs, etc.

If the other methods do not work to gain access to your Raspberry Pi or you lose your video out signal, using the serial terminal is a great way to see if your Raspberry Pi is still working and to debug any problems you might have.

You will need a USB to serial converter for this to work. We recommend:

SparkFun Beefy 3 - FTDI Basic Breakout

SparkFun Beefy 3 - FTDI Basic Breakout

DEV-13746
$14.95
6
Jumper Wires - Connected 6" (M/F, 20 pack)

Jumper Wires - Connected 6" (M/F, 20 pack)

PRT-12794
$1.95

Alternatively, you could use a USB to TTL Serial Cable. Note that if you are using the Raspberry Pi Zero W, you will need to solder a header onto the GPIO port.

Caution! The GPIO pins on the Raspberry Pi are NOT 5V tolerant. That means you must use a 3.3V USB-to-serial converter.

Enable the Serial Terminal

In versions of the Raspberry Pi after 3 (e.g. 3 Model B, 3 Model B+, Zero W), the processor contains two hardware UARTs. One is dedicated to the Bluetooth module, while the other is a less-featured “mini UART.” This mini UART is broken out on pins 8 and 10 and can be used as a serial terminal into Linux.

The problem is that the mini UART’s clock is tied to the variable clock speed of the graphics processing unit (GPU). We need to set a static system clock in order to use the mini UART as a serial terminal. This can potentially disable some features (e.g. overclocking or power-saving mode), but it should not affect normal operation. See here to learn more about the mini UART.

With your SD card still plugged into your computer, browse to the boot partition, and find the config.txt file.

config.txt in the boot partition

Use your text editor of choice to modify the file (on Windows, something like Notepad++ is recommended). Add

language:bash
enable_uart=1

to the end of the document.

Add enable_uart=1 to config.txt

Save and exit.

Hardware Connections

Take a look at the pinout for the Raspberry Pi 3.

Raspberry Pi 3 pinout

You’ll see that pins 8 and 10 are connected to UART transmit (TXD) and receive (RXD), respectively. We’ll need to connect GND (Raspberry Pi) to GND (USB to serial converter), TXD to RXI, and RXD to TXO. Note that we do not need to connect any power pins (3.3V or 5V).

Raspberry Pi 3 serial terminal connections to FTDI board

Log In

Connect the USB to serial converter to your computer, and connect the wall adapter to the Raspberry Pi’s PWR (USB micro B) port.

Raspberry Pi connected to a computer using a USB to serial converter

Choose a serial terminal based on your operating system (here are some options).

If you are using Windows, you will need to know the COM port number connected to your USB to serial adapter, which can be found in the Device Manager.

PuTTY configuration to connect to a Raspberry Pi over serial

Change the settings as necessary to match the following:

  • Baud rate: 115200 bps
  • Data bits: 8
  • Parity: None
  • Stop bits: 1
  • Flow Control: None

Open the connection, and press enter. You should be presented with a login prompt.

Serial terminal connection to the Raspberry Pi

Enter the following credentials (default login):

  • Username: pi
  • Password: raspberry

You should be logged in at the command prompt and ready to type Linux commands!

Logged in to the Raspberry Pi over a serial console

Ethernet with Static IP Address

If you do not want to use the serial terminal or want to be able to log in to your Raspberry Pi over a network connection, you can give your Pi a static IP address, connect it to your network (or to your computer via a crossover/Ethernet cable), and log in via SSH.

Note: Windows and Mac cannot access the filesystem partition of the Raspberry Pi image on the SD card. As a result, you will need access to a computer with a Linux operating system. If you don't have a Linux computer nearby, you can make a Live CD (or bootable USB drive) to temporarily boot into Linux to make the necessary file changes on the SD card. Once you have edited the necessary files, you can switch to another operating system.

Set Up Static IP Address

Plug the micro SD card (with the flashed Raspbian image) into your Linux computer. Most modern versions of Linux should automatically mount both partitions (boot and rootfs). You will need superuser privileges to edit the files on rootfs. Open a command prompt and edit /etc/dhcpcd.conf in rootfs.

Navigate to the rootfs directory (wherever your Linux distro has mounted it):

language:bash
cd /media/<USERNAME>/rootfs

Edit the dhcpcd.conf file:

language:bash
sudo nano etc/dhcpcd.conf

Scroll down to the bottom of the file and add the following lines:

language:bash
interface eth0

static ip_address=192.168.4.2/24
static routers=192.168.4.1
static domain_name_servers=192.168.4.1

Setting a static IP address on the Raspberry Pi rootfs partition

Save and exit by pressing ctrl + x and y when asked if you would like to save.

Enable SSH

In 2016, much of the Internet slowed to a crawl as a result of the IoT DDoS attack brought about by the Mirai botnet. In response to vulnerable IoT systems with default username and password logins, the Raspberry Pi Foundation decided to disable the SSH connection by default on all future releases of Raspbian. As a result, we now need to enable SSH so we can log in over a network connection. You can read more about the reasonings for this here.

Luckily, this is easy to do. With the SD card still plugged in, navigate to the boot partition and create a blank file named “ssh” in that directory.

Still in the console, enter the following commands:

language:bash
cd ../boot
touch ssh

You should see an empty file named “ssh” appear in the root boot partition.

Create an empty ssh file in the boot partition to enable SSH connections

Unmount the SD card from your host computer and insert it into the Raspberry Pi.

Configure Your Host Computer’s IP Address

Plug an Ethernet cable into the Raspberry Pi and the other end into your computer. Technically, we should be using a crossover cable, but since the late 1990s, most computers are capable of automatically detecting and configuring for crossover.

Raspberry Pi connected to computer using an Ethernet cable

Configure your host computer to have an Ethernet static IP address with the following properties:

language:bash
IP Address: 192.168.4.1
Subnet Mask: 255.255.255.0
Default Gateway: 192.168.4.1

Instructions to set up a static IP address for the following operating systems: Windows, Mac, Linux (Ubuntu).

Connect Over SSH

Secure Shell (SSH) gives us a terminal into an operating system over a network and encrypts the traffic, giving us a level of security. Depending on your host operating system, you have a number of options available to you.

Windows

PuTTY is an easy-to-use SSH, Telnet, and Serial terminal client. Open PuTTY, and set the Host Name to 192.168.4.2 and Port to 22.

Using PuTTY to connect to a Raspberry Pi with a static IP address

Click Open. If asked about chaching a host key, click Yes.

Mac and Linux

The easiest way to connect to another computer over SSH is to use the ssh command line tool built into most distributions of Linux and Mac OS. Simply open up a terminal and type:

language:bash
ssh 192.168.4.2

Log In

Once SSH connects, enter the default login credentials:

  • Username: pi
  • Password: raspberry

You should be presented with a command prompt, if all goes well.

Logging into a Raspberry Pi over SSH

WiFi with DHCP

If you don’t want to mess with extra hardware or use Linux to modify the Raspbian filesystem, then you may want to consider having the Raspberry Pi connect to your local WiFi access point, finding its IP address, and logging in over SSH.

Note: You will need access to your WiFi access point (or router) to determine your Raspberry Pi's IP address. In an enterprise environment (e.g. office or school), this might be difficult or impossible to accomplish without consulting with your IT department.

Enable WiFi

With the SD card plugged into your computer, navigate to the boot partition. In the root directory, create a file named wpa_supplicant.conf. The next time you boot up your Raspberry Pi, this file will automatically be moved to the /etc/wpa_supplicant/ directory in the filesystem.

wpa_supplicant file in the Raspberry Pi boot partition

Edit the file using your text editor of choice (on Windows, something like Notepad++ is recommended). Copy in the following text. Change <YOUR TWO LETTER COUNTRY CODE> to your ISO country code found here (for the United States, this is US). Change <YOUR NETWORK NAME> to the SSID of your WiFi network and <YOUR NETWORK PASSWORD> to the WiFi network’s password.

language:bash
ctrl_interface=DIR=/var/run/wpa_supplicant GROUP=netdev
update_config=1
country=<YOUR TWO LETTER COUNTRY CODE>

network={
    ssid="<YOUR NETWORK NAME>"
    psk="<YOUR NETWORK PASSWORD>"
    key_mgmt=WPA-PSK
}

Save and exit.

Enable SSH

In 2016, much of the Internet slowed to a crawl as a result of the IoT DDoS attack brought about by the Mirai botnet. In response to vulnerable IoT systems with default username and password logins, the Raspberry Pi Foundation decided to disable the SSH connection by default on all future releases of Raspbian. As a result, we now need to enable SSH so we can log in over a network connection. You can read more about the reasonings for this here.

In the boot partition, simple create an empty file with the name ssh.

Create an empty file named ssh in the boot partition to enable SSH

Unmount the SD card from your host computer and insert it into the Raspberry Pi.

Find the Raspberry Pi’s IP Address

Power on your Raspberry Pi and wait for it to connect to your WiFi network. Open up your wireless router’s configuration page (for example, by typing in 192.168.1.1 into a browser window). From there, find your router’s DHCP lease table and make a note of your Raspberry Pi’s IP address.

Screenshot of DHCP lease table with IP address for Raspberry Pi in WiFi router

Connect Over SSH

Secure Shell (SSH) gives us a terminal into an operating system over a network and encrypts the traffic, giving us a level of security. Depending on your host operating system, you have a number of options available to you.

Windows

PuTTY is an easy-to-use SSH, Telnet, and Serial terminal client. Open PuTTY, and set the Host Name to the IP address we found in the previous step and Port to 22.

Using PuTTY to connect to a Raspberry Pi with a static IP address

Click Open. If asked about caching a host key, click Yes.

Mac and Linux

The easiest way to connect to another computer over SSH is to use the ssh command line tool built into most distributions of Linux and Mac OS. Simply open up a terminal and type:

language:bash
ssh <IP ADDRESS FROM PREVIOUS STEP>

Log In

Once SSH connects, simply enter the default login credentials:

  • Username: pi
  • Password: raspberry

You should be presented with a command prompt, if all goes well.

Connected to the Raspberry Pi over SSH wit PuTTY

Resources and Going Further

At this point, you should be logged in to your Raspberry Pi over some kind of terminal (e.g. serial, SSH). You have the power of Linux at your fingertips! You can begin writing code and calling commands as you wish.

A good source of documentation about the Raspberry Pi is the Embedded Linux Raspberry Pi Wiki Page.

If you’d like to turn your Raspberry Pi into a WiFi access point, see this tutorial:

Setting up a Raspberry Pi 3 as an Access Point

April 23, 2018

This guide will show you how to configure a Raspberry Pi as an access point and connect it to your local Ethernet network to share Internet to other WiFi devices.

Looking for some inspiration for your Raspberry Pi? Check out these tutorials:

Raspberry Pi Twitter Monitor

How to use a Raspberry Pi to monitor Twitter for hashtags and blink an LED.

Raspberry gPIo

How to use either Python or C++ to drive the I/O lines on a Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi Zero Helmet Impact Force Monitor

How much impact can the human body handle? This tutorial will teach you how to build your very own impact force monitor using a helmet, Raspberry Pi Zero, and accelerometer!

Setting Up the Pi Zero Wireless Pan-Tilt Camera

This tutorial will show you how to assemble, program, and access the Raspberry Pi Zero as a headless wireless pan-tilt camera.

Using Flask to Send Data to a Raspberry Pi

In this tutorial, we'll show you how to use the Flask framework for Python to send data from ESP8266 WiFi nodes to a Raspberry Pi over an internal WiFi network.

Raspberry Pi Stand-Alone Programmer

This tutorial will show you how to use a headless Raspberry Pi to flash hex files onto AVR microcontrollers as a stand-alone programmer. It also tells the story about production programming challenges, how SparkFun came to this solution, and all the lessons learned along the way.