Skip to main content

Modular 'Pi-Tops' Raise Safety Concerns After Student 'Burns' Finger

If you or an eager young hacker you know has been tinkering with the modular Raspberry Pi-powered Pi-Top 3, you may want to take care when handling it going forward. 

According to TechCrunch, the laptop, created in a bid to help kids learn how to code and better understand the inner workings of electronics, has been raising a number of product reliability questions. One such concern relates to an injury a student at a United States school suffered when they touched a certain component on the device, which had overheated. 

(Image credit: Pi-Top)


Confirmed by a spokesperson at Cornell Tech, the incident took place in June, and apparently resulted in the student, per Pi-Top internal memos, suffering a "very nasty finger burn." A nurse was called on to investigate the injury, which left the student with redness on the affected finger. 
When reached for comment, Pi-Top stated that the company "incorporates all possible safeguards into our products to ensure they are safe." Additionally, the company detailed how the particular component got prohibitively hot in the first place. 

“As soon as we became aware of this incident we immediately investigated what had happened,” explained Pi-Top. “We discovered that the incident was a one-in-a-million occurrence. The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.”

“This is the only reported incident where a user has been hurt whilst using one of our products,” the company explained. It certainly seems as though this was a case where user error may have contributed to the issue, and as such the Pi-Top computer doesn't seem entirely to blame here. 

An internal email at Pi-Top from Preya Wylie, head of support and customer success, stated more explicitly that the “unusual failure mode was likely caused by an electrical short on the male 34-pin connector on the underside of the protoboard." She described a scenario in which its VP of technology had been able to recreate similar contentions from his own workbench with an electrical short and overheating. 

The team has been hard at work to ensure the problem doesn't reoccur, with a list of recommendations to users to keep it from happening. Some solutions include advising teachers to remove the laptop's SD card removal tool from the laptops and to do it themselves rather than letting the students do so. Another recommendation is to create a plastic cover to go over the hub in an effort to keep anyone's hands from getting close to hot components. Or, the solution could simply be to cut off an additional pin. 

A spokesperson for Cornell Tech stated that the organization has ceased use of the Pi-Top 3 because of this incident, as well as issues with reliability, which TechCrunch has corroborated with other sources. As far as the injury goes and Pi-Top's measures to resolve it, the team is reaching out to customers to advise them of the actions in place to try and resolve the issue.
 
“Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it.  We are also advising customers to remove the SD card tool from the unit. These simple actions will make the remote possibility of a recurrence even less likely," the company wrote. 

In the meantime, if you're interested in trying out one of the models for yourself or your STEM-engaged children, you can check out the Pi-Top 3, which is still on sale at the official website for $319.99. It comes with a slime green case, a 14-inch, 1080p screen, a sliding modular rail and 8-hour battery life. 

  • bit_user
    Meh, any burn not requiring an ER visit isn't worth writing about. Sure, if there's not a cover where there should be, then a routine design tweak would be warranted, but this sounds like a whole lot of fuss over basically nothing. I mean, what's next: they ban hammers from wood working class when a student misses a nail and bashes their thumb?

    IMO, this is a great, teachable moment. You get to explain to students exactly what a short circuit is, and why it caused the metal to heat up like that.
    Reply
  • USAFRet
    "The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.” "

    A piece of metal, placed on two electrical contacts, can get hot.
    News at 11 !
    Reply
  • DavidC1
    This is so stupid. There's a limit to how simple you can teach complex subjects such as electronics. Sometimes students need to be subject to hard work, and the information delivered shouldn't be diluted.
    Reply
  • GetSmart
    USAFRet said:
    "The user dropped a piece of metal, with a specific size and shape, under the unit. This fell in such a way that it touched a particular pin and caused a linear regulator to heat up. They received a small minor burn to the tip of one finger when they tried to recover that piece of metal.” "
    Typically a linear regulator can actually be quite hot (which is why a substantial heatsink is usually required, either using the PCB itself or a dedicated heatsink). If that "piece of metal" caused the linear regulator to heat up, then likely a short circuit to the GND. However linear regulators usually have overcurrent or short circuit protection, which it should shutdown in case of a short circuit.

    USAFRet said:
    A piece of metal, placed on two electrical contacts, can get hot.
    News at 11 !
    Well, only if there is a large current flowing through it (such as from a short circuit). Anyway, the heatsink tab on the linear regulators can become so hot that its usually not touchable (by human fingers).
    Reply
  • Growle
    DAMMIT TIMMY GET YOUR FINGER OUT OF THE PI-HOLE
    faint zapping sounds
    Reply
  • drivinfast247
    “Whilst it is highly unlikely that this would occur again, we are writing to customers to advise them to take a common-sense approach and switch off the unit if something has got lost inside it."

    Good luck with that!
    Reply
  • cryoburner
    bit_user said:
    IMO, this is a great, teachable moment. You get to explain to students exactly what a short circuit is, and why it caused the metal to heat up like that.
    Isn't Cornell Tech an engineering college? This student was probably in their 20s. : P
    Reply
  • USAFRet
    cryoburner said:
    Isn't Cornell Tech an engineering college? This student was probably in their 20s. : P
    You're thinking of Cornell University.

    Cornell Tech is completely different
    https://tech.cornell.edu/

    And this Pi laptop thing is aimed at little kids...elementary school age.
    I would guess no older than 11.
    Reply
  • cryoburner
    USAFRet said:
    You're thinking of Cornell University.

    Cornell Tech is completely different
    https://tech.cornell.edu/
    And this Pi laptop thing is aimed at little kids...elementary school age.
    I would guess no older than 11.

    "Cornell Tech is a technology, business, law, and design campus located on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, New York City."

    So, are these 11-year olds studying business and law on an island in the middle of New York City? : P This is in fact a recently opened graduate school operated by Cornell University. It looks like they do have a program where kids from area schools can come in for the day to learn about coding though, so it's possible that it may have been a younger student. The article was a bit light on details about that though.
    Reply
  • USAFRet
    cryoburner said:
    "Cornell Tech is a technology, business, law, and design campus located on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, New York City."

    So, are these 11-year olds studying business and law on an island in the middle of New York City? : P This is in fact a recently opened graduate school operated by Cornell University. It looks like they do have a program where kids from area schools can come in for the day to learn about coding though, so it's possible that it may have been a younger student. The article was a bit light on details about that though.
    Collaboration between the college and the kids school.

    Also light on the level of "burn".
    Was it "ouch thats hot", or was it actual scorched skin? I'm thinking the former.
    But then once it goes to the school nurse to check out...articles like this. "OMG! Burn!"

    The Pi-Top is specifically aimed at younger STEM students.
    Reply