DIY Interactive Robots: An Interview with Erin Kennedy

Erin “RobotGrrl” Kennedy designs award-winning robots. Her RoboBrrd DIY robot-building kit successfully launched in 2012 and was featured in IEEE Spectrum, Forbes, Wired, and on the Discovery Channel. Erin was recognized as  one of the 20 Intel Emerging Young Entrepreneurs. In this interview she tells us about her passion for robotics, early designs, and future plans.5938310667_89a68ca380_o

CIRCUIT CELLAR: How and when did Erin Kennedy become “RobotGrrl?”

ERIN: I used to play an online game, but didn’t want to use my nickname from there. I was building LEGO robots at the time, so my friend suggested “RobotGrrl.” It sounds like a growl without the “ow.”

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us about RobotGrrl.com. Why and when did you decide to start blogging?

ERIN: I started RobotGrrl.com around 2006 to document my adventures into the world of robotics. I would post updates to my project on there, similar to a log book. It helped me gain a community that would follow my adventures.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Your RoboBrrd company is based on the success of your RoboBrrd beginner robot-building kit, which was funded by Indiegogo in 2012. How does the robot work? What is included in the kit?

ERIN: RoboBrrd works by using three servos, a laser-cut chassis, and an Arduino derivative for its brain. Two of the servos are used for the robot’s wings and the third one is used for the beak mechanism. To construct the chassis, all you need is glue. The brains are on a custom-designed Arduino derivative, complete with RoboBrrd doodles on the silkscreen.

RobotBrrd

RoboBrrd

The first prototype of RoboBrrd was created with pencils and popsicle sticks. Adafruit sent me the electronics and in return I would make weekly videos about building the robot. People seemed to like the robot, so I kept making newer prototypes that would improve on problems and add more to the design.

Eventually I started working on a laser-cut kit version. I won the WyoLum Open Hardware grant and, with the money, I was able to order PCBs I designed for RoboBrrd.

I had enough money for a flight out to California (for RoboGames and Maker Faire Bay Area) where I was an artist in residence at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories. It was helpful to be able to use their laser cutter right when a new design was ready. Plus, I was able to build a really old and cool Heathkit.

RoboBrrd chassis

RoboBrrd chassis

Afterward, I worked on the design a little more. SpikenzieLabs (www.spikenzielabs.com) helped laser cut it for me and eventually it was all finished. It was such an awesome feeling to finally have a solid design!

In 2012, RoboBrrd launched on Indiegogo and luckily there were enough friends out there who were able to help the project and back it. They were all very enthusiastic about the project. I was really lucky.

Now I am working on a newer version of the 3-D printed RoboBrrd and some iOS applications that use Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to communicate with it. The design has come a long way, and it has been fun to learn many new things from RoboBrrd.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: RoboBrrd has had widespread popularity. The robots have been featured on The Discovery Channel, Forbes, MAKE, and WIRED. To what do you attribute your success?

ERIN: The success of RoboBrrd is attributed to everyone who is enthusiastic about it, especially those who have bought a kit or made their own RoboBrrds. It is always fun to see whenever people make modifications to their RoboBrrds.

All I did was make and deliver the kit. It’s all of the “friends of RoboBrrd” who bring their own creative ideas to make it really shine. Also, from the previous question, the readers can see that I had a lot of help along the way.

Having the robots featured on many websites required some luck. You never know if your e-mail pitch is what the journalists are looking for to cover the robot. I was really lucky that websites featured RoboBrrd; it provides it with a little more credibility.

In my opinion, the quirkiness of RoboBrrd helps as well. Sometimes people view it as the “open-source hardware (OSHW) Furby.” It’s a robotic bird and it isn’t your regular wheeled-robot.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: What was the first embedded system you designed. Where were you at the time? What did you learn from the experience?

ERIN: There were systems that I designed using the LEGO Mindstorms RCX 2.0, but my very first design from scratch was a robot called BubbleBoy. The outer appearance looked like a pink snowman. It sat on a green ice cream container and wore a top hat. It was very rudimentary. At the time I was in Grade 11.

Inside of the body sphere were two servos. The servos would push/pull on paper clips that were attached to the head. Inside the head there was a DC motor to spin the top hat around. There was also a smaller DC motor inside the body to attach to a hula hoop to wiggle it. The electronics were enclosed in the container. The robot used an Arduino Diecimila microcontroller board (limited-edition prototype version) and some transistors to control the motors from battery power. There was also a LCD to display the robot’s current mood and water and food levels. On each side of the screen buttons incremented the water or food levels.

There’s a 2009 video of me showing BubbleBoy on Fat Man & Circuit Girl. (Jeri Ellsworth co-hosted the webcast.)

There was not as much documentation online about the Arduino and learning electronics as there is now. I gained many skills from this experience.

The biggest thing I learned from BubbleBoy was how to drive DC motors by using transistors. I also learned how to not mount servos. The hot glue on polystyrene was never rigid enough and kept moving. It was a fun project; the hands-on making of a robot character can really help you kick off making bigger projects.

You can read the entire interview in Circuit Cellar 293 (December 2014).

Electrical Engineering Innovation & Outreach

Bill Porter is a Panama City Beach, FL-based electronics engineer working for the US Navy. When he isn’t working on unmanned systems for the Navy, he spends his time running an engineering-focused educational outreach program and working on his own projects. In this interview, Bill talks about his first designs, technical interests, and current projects.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: You’re an electronics engineer for the United States Navy. Can you describe any of the projects you’re involved with?

BILL: I work with unmanned systems, or robots that are teleoperated and/or autonomous. This includes systems that swim under water, on the surface, or across the land. The Navy is working hard to develop robots to do the jobs that are dirty, dangerous, or dull and help keep the sailor out of harm’s way. One such system is called MUSCL, or Modular Systems Craft Littoral. MUSCL is a small, man-portable surface vehicle that is used by Riverine Patrol for remote surveillance and reconnaissance. I was the lead electrical engineer for the project.

Besides robots, I am also working on a few education outreach programs that work towards getting more students interested in STEM careers.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us about The Science Brothers nonprofit outreach program. How did the program start?

BILL: The Science Brothers is my main educational outreach program run out of my Navy base. For two Fridays every month, a few of my coworkers and I will visit a local elementary school to put on a show. The script of the show centers on the dynamics of two brothers, who specialize in different fields and argue over whose science is “cooler.” The result is a fun and wacky trip exploring different premises in science, such as light, sound, and energy, with examples and demonstrations from the realms of chemistry, physics, and electricity.

Science Brothers show

Science Brothers show

The program restarted when a few coworkers and I sat down and decided to bring back an old program that had existed on the base in the ‘90s called “Dr. Science.” The goal of the program was to bring science-based experiments to the schools using equipment they otherwise were not able to afford. By wowing the students with the spectacular-looking demos, we get them excited about science and yearning to learn more.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Your website (BillPorter.info) includes projects involving 3-D printing, motor controllers, and LEDs. What types of projects do you prefer working on and why?

BILL: I am a hardware guy. I love to fire up my favorite PCB CAD software just to get an idea out of my head and on the screen. I do not breadboard very often, as I would rather take my chances trying some new idea on a board first. Either it works, or I have an excuse to design another PCB. Thankfully, group-order PCB services have enabled my addiction tinkering at a very low cost. I wish I was stronger at mechanical CAD design to really get the full potential out of my 3-D printer, but I have done well enough without it. It really does come in handy at times, whether it is a quick project enclosure, a mount, or a part for our garden.

Bill is self-proclaimed "hardware guy"

Bill is self-proclaimed “hardware guy”

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Do you have a favorite project?

BILL: Yes! My wedding of course! I married the girl of my dreams who is just as much as a geek as I am, and as a result, we had an extremely geeky wedding over a year in the making involving many projects throughout. So much so that our theme was “Circuit and Swirls” and we carried the motif throughout.

Wedding gadgets

Wedding gadgets

We designed and made our own wedding invitations involving LEDs, a microprocessor, and a clever Easter egg. Furthermore, we 3-D-printed our centerpieces, built up our own “e-textile” wedding attire with LEDs and EL wire, and we even had a “soldering ceremony” during the event. It made our parents nervous, but in the end, everyone had a good time. Did I mention I asked her to marry me on a PCB she designed for a project?

EE-themed wedding invitations

EE-themed wedding invitations

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Are you currently working on or planning any projects? Can you tell us about them?

BILL: I have one main project that is taking up all my time at work and at home. A coworker and I are the technical directors for the first-ever Maritime RobotX Challenge. The challenge, sponsored by Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Foundation and by the Office for Naval Research (ONR), will take place this October in Singapore. It will include 15 teams of college students from five participating nations and put them to the test by challenging them to design a robot that will complete five tasks autonomously. As one of the technical directors, I have been helping design and build the interactive course elements that the teams’ robots will be facing. Find out more at Robotx.org.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: What new technologies excite you and why?

BILL: I have always been infatuated by LEDs and ways to conserve energy, so I am most excited to see how efficient LEDs are starting to take over as the new source of light in the household.

The complete interview appears in Circuit Cellar 291 (October 2014).

Q&A: Electrical Engineer & FPGA Enthusiast

Chris Zeh is a San Jose, CA-based hardware design engineer who enjoys working with FPGA development boards, application-specific integrated circuits, and logic analyzers. He recently told us about the projects he is involved with at STMicroelectronics and explained what he’s working on in his free time.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us about Idle-Logic.com. Why and when did you decide to start a blog?

ZehCHRIS: I started blogging in the winter of 2009, a little more than a year after I graduated Colorado State University with a BSEE. I realized that after graduating it was important to continue working on various projects to keep my mind and skills sharp. I figured the best way to chronicle and show off my projects was to start a blog—my little corner of the Internet.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: What types of projects do you feature on your site?

CHRIS: I like working on a wide range of different types of projects, varying from software development to digital and analog design. I’ve found that most of my projects highlighted on Idle-Logic.com have been ones focusing on FPGAs. I find these little reprogrammable, multipurpose ICs both immensely powerful and fascinating to work with.

My initial plan for the blog was to start a development project to create an FPGA equivalent to the Arduino. I wanted to build a main board with all the basic hardware to run an Altera Cyclone II FPGA and then create add-on PCBs with various sensors and interfaces. My main FPGA board was to be named the Saturn board, and the subsequent add-on “wings” were to be named after the various moons of Saturn.

a—Chris’s Saturn board prototype includes an Altera Cyclone II FPGA and JTAG FPGA programmer, two linear regulators, a 5-V breadboard power supply, and a 24-MHz clock. b—A side view of the board

a—Chris’s Saturn board prototype includes an Altera Cyclone II FPGA and JTAG FPGA programmer, two linear regulators, a 5-V breadboard power supply, and a 24-MHz clock. b—A side view of the board

The project proceeded nicely. I spent some time brushing up on my Photoshop skills to put together a logo and came up with a minimized BOM solution to provide power to the nine different voltage supplies, both linear regulators and switched-mode supplies. One aspect of FPGAs that can make them costly for hobbyist is that the programming JTAG cable was on the order of $300. Fortunately, there are a few more affordable off-brand versions, which I used at first. After many weeks of work, I finally had the total solution for the main FPGA board. The total cost of the prototype system was about $150. Eventually I came up with a way to bit bang the FPGA’s programming bitstream using a simple $15 USB-to-UART IC breakout board driven by a tiny Python application, eliminating the need for the pricey cable. This Future Technology Devices International FT232RL USB-to-UART IC also provided a clock output enabling me to further reduce the component count.

The project was a success in that I was compelled to completely digest the FPGA’s 470-page handbook, giving me a solid grasp of how to work with FPGAs such as the Cyclone II. The project was a failure in that the FPGA breakout board I wanted to use for the project was discontinued by the manufacturer. Creating and fabricating my own four-layer board and hand soldering the 208-pin package was both prohibitively expensive and also a little daunting.

Fortunately, at that time Terasic Technologies introduced its DE0-Nano, a $79 commercial, $59 academic, feature-packed FPGA evaluation board. The board comes with two 40-pin general I/O plus power headers, which has become a perfect alternative base platform for FPGA development. I now intend to develop add-on “wings” to work with this evaluation board.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us more about how you’ve been using Terasic Technologies’s DE0-Nano development and education board.

CHRIS: The main project I’ve been working on lately with the DE0-Nano is creating and adding support for a full-color 4.3” (480 × 272 pixel) thin- film transistor (TFT) touchscreen LCD. Because of the large pin count available and reconfigurable logic, the DE0-Nano can easily support the display. I used a Waveshare Electronics $20 display, which includes a 40-pin header that is almost but not quite compatible with the DE0-Nano’s 40-pin header. Using a 40-pin IDC gray cable, I was able to do some creative rewiring (cutting and swapping eight or so pins) to enable the two to mate with minimal effort. Eventually, once all the features are tested, I’ll fabricate a PCB in place of the cable.

There are many libraries available to drive the display, but for this project I want to develop the hardware accelerators and video pipeline from the ground up, purely though digital logic in the FPGA. I recently picked up an SD card breakout board and a small camera breakout board. Using these I would like to start playing around with image processing and object recognition algorithms.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: What do you do at STMicroelectronics and what types of projects are you working on?

CHRIS: My official title is Senior Hardware Design Engineer. This title mainly comes thanks to the first project I worked on for the company, which is ongoing—an FPGA-based serial port capture and decoding tool named the HyperSniffer. However, my main role is that of an application engineer.

I spend most of my time testing and debugging our prototype mixed-signal ASICs prior to mass production. These ASICs are built for the hard disk drive industry. They provide several switch-mode power supplies, linear regulators, brushless DC motor controllers, voice coil motor actuation, and a shock sensor digital processing chain, along with the various DACs, ADCs, and monitoring circuits all integrated into a single IC.

Our ASIC’s huge feature set requires me to stay sharp on a wide variety of topics, both analog and digital. A typical day has me down in the lab writing scripts in Python or Visual Studio, creating stimuli, and taking measurements using my 1-GHz, 10-GSPS LeCroy WavePro 7100A oscilloscope, several 6.5-digit multimeters, dynamic signal analyzers, and noise injection power supplies among other instruments. I work closely with our international design team and our customers to help discover and document bugs and streamline the system integration.

A few years back I was able to join my colleagues in writing “Power Electronics Control to Reduce Hard Disk Drive Acoustics Pure Tones,” an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) paper published for the Control and Modeling for Power Electronics (COMPEL) 2010 conference. I presented the paper, poster, and demonstration at the conference discussing a novel technique to reduce acoustic noise generated by a spindle motor.

Chris designed the HyperSniffer logic analyzer, which is shown with the HyperDrive main board. (The PCB was designed by Vincent Himpe and Albino Miglialo.)

Chris designed the HyperSniffer logic analyzer, which is shown with the HyperDrive main board. (The PCB was designed by Vincent
Himpe and Albino Miglialo.)

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Tell us more about the HyperSniffer project.

CHRIS: The HyperSniffer project is an FPGA- based digital design project I first created right out of college. (My colleagues Vincent Himpe and Albino Miglialo did the board design and layout.) The tool is basically an application-specific logic analyzer. It enables us to help our customers troubleshoot problems that arise from serial port transmissions between their system-on-a-chip (SoC) and our ASIC. Through various triggering options it can collect and decode the two or three wire data transmissions, store them on on- board memory, and wait for retrieval and further processing by the application running on the PC. One of this tool’s nice features is that it is capable of synchronizing and communicating with an oscilloscope, enabling us to track down problems that happen in the analog domain that arise due to commands sent digitally.

You can read the entire interview in Circuit Cellar 290 (September 2014).

Q&A: Embedded Systems Training Expert

Professional engineer Jason Long worked as an embedded systems designer for more than a decade. In 2010 he founded Engenuics Technologies. Jason lives in Victoria, BC, where he continues growing his company alongside the MicroProcessor Group (MPG) embedded systems hardware teaching program he developed in 2000.

 

CIRCUIT CELLAR: In 2010 you founded your company Engenuics Technologies (www.engenuics.com) based on the success of the MicroProcessorGroup (MPG) program. Give us a little background. How did the MPG begin?

JASON: MPG started way back in 2000 at the University of Calgary when I was doing my undergraduate studies. I figured out that embedded systems was exactly what I wanted to do, but struggled to find enough hands-on learning in the core curriculum programs to satisfy this new appetite. I was involved in the university’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) student branch, where someone handed me my first Microchip Technology PIC microcontroller and ran a few lunchtime tutorials about getting it up and running. I wanted more, and so did other people.

Jason Long

Jason Long

I was also very aware that I needed to drastically improve my personal confidence and my ability to speak in public if I was going to have any luck with a career outside of a cubicle, let alone survive an interview to get a job in the first place. The combination of these two things was the perfect excuse/opportunity to start up the MPG to ensure I kept learning by being accountable to teach people new stuff each week, but also to gain the experience of delivering those presentations.

I was blown away when there were almost 30 people at the first MPG meeting, but I was ready. Two things became very clear very quickly. The first was that, to be able to teach, you must achieve a whole new level of mastery about your subject, but it was also okay to say, “I don’t know” and find out for next week. The second was that I could, in fact, get my nerves under control as long as I was prepared and didn’t try to do too much. I’m still nervous every time I start a lecture, even 14 years later, but now I know how to use those nerves! The best part was that people really appreciated what I was doing and perhaps were a bit more tolerant since MPG is free. I found a love for teaching that I didn’t expect, nor did I get how rewarding the endeavor would be.

When I was wrapping up the ninth year of the program, I considered giving it one more year and then calling it quits. I took a moment to look back at what the program was when I started and where it had come to—it had indeed evolved a lot, and I figured I had put in about 2,000 h by this point. It seemed like a waste to throw in the towel. I also looked at the relationships that had come from the program, both personally and professionally, and realized that the majority of my career and who I had become professionally had really been defined by my work with MPG. But the program—even though it was still just in Calgary—was too big to keep as a side project. I had $10,000 in inventory to support the development boards, and although all monies stayed in the program, there were thousands of dollars exchanging hands. This was a business waiting to happen, though I had never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. I was just doing stuff I loved.

This ARM-based development board is made by Jason’s company, Engenuics Technologies.

This ARM-based development board is made by Jason’s company, Engenuics Technologies.

Around the same time I discovered SparkFun Electronics, and more importantly, I discovered the story of how the company got started by Nathan Seidie. That story begins almost exactly how MPG began, but clearly Nathan is a lot smarter than I am and has built an amazing company in the same time it took me to get to this point. I feel quite disappointed when I think about it that way, but thankfully I don’t think it’s too late to do what I should have done a long time ago. I hope to meet Nathan one day, but even if I don’t, I consider him a mentor and his story provides validation that the MPG platform and community may be able to grow and be sustainable.

I think MPG/Engenuics Technologies can find similar success as SparkFun. We can do that without ever having to compete against SparkFun because what we do is unique enough. There might be a bit of overlap, but I’m always going to try to complement what SparkFun does rather than compete against it. We simply become another resource to feed the voracious and infinite appetite for information from students, hobbyists, and engineers. Win-win is always the way to go.

I decided I should grow the program instead of ending it, so I started Engenuics Technologies, which would be built on the decade of MPG experience plus the decade of embedded design experience I had from the industry. It seemed like a pretty solid foundation on which to start a company! Surely I could promote all of the content and find students of the same mindset I was in when I started MPG? They could lead the program at different universities and develop those infinitely valuable communication and leadership skills that MPG fosters, except they’d have the advantage of not having to put in hundreds of hours to write all of the material. Even if groups of people weren’t playing with MPG, individuals could make use of the technical resource on their own and we could have a solid online community. I also wanted to keep students engaged beyond the single year of their engineer degrees in which MPG existed.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: What other products/services does Engenuics Technologies provide?

JASON: I describe Engenuics Technologies as a four-tier company as there are three significant aspects of the business in addition to MPG. The main purpose of the company is to fill a gap in the industry for specific training in embedded systems. There is very little formal training to be found for low-to-mid-level embedded hardware and firmware development and quality/value is often hit or miss. From teaching for 10 years while being an embedded designer for the same amount of time, I felt like I had the right skills to create great training. I had already created a LabVIEW course that I delivered internally for a company while I worked there, and people were blown away by the quality and content. I saw a huge need to develop embedded-specific training to help new graduates transition to the industry as well as junior engineers who were lacking in some fundamental engineering knowledge.

We have an embedded boot camp course that is about 20% hardware and 80% firmware focused, which I think is essential for new engineering graduates getting into embedded design. Though the course is based specifically on a Cortex-M3 development board, we ensure that we focus on how to learn a processor so the knowledge can be applied to any platform.

Engenuics Technologies has several courses now and we continue to offer those periodically though never as often as we would like, as we’ve become too busy with the other parts of the company. We finally got an office last August with an onsite training room, which makes the logistics much easier, and we’re ramping up the frequency of the programs we offer.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: You earned your BSEE from the University of Calgary in 2002. Can you describe any of the projects you’ve worked while you were there?

JASON: The professors at the U of C were a phenomenal bunch and it was a privilege to get to know them and work with them during my undergraduate studies. I remain in contact with many of them, and several are very good friends. Aside from blinking some LEDs on breadboards, the first complicated device I built was an attempt at the IEEE Micromouse competition. That proved to be a little much and my robot never did do anything beyond go forward, sense a wall, and then back up.

While studying at the University of Calgary, some of Jason’s first embedded designs included a programmable phase-locked loop project, a robot built for an IEEE Micromouse competition, an MPG dev board, and a binary clock.

While studying at the University of Calgary, some of Jason’s first embedded designs included a programmable phase-locked loop project, a robot built for an IEEE Micromouse competition, an MPG dev board, and a binary clock.

I originally thought I would base MPG around building robots, but that proved impossible due to cost. Building a robot is still on my bucket list. I’ll likely get there once my two boys are old enough to want to build robots. I continue to fantasize about building an autonomous quadcopter that can deliver beer. I better get busy on that before its commonplace!

Our IEEE student branch had a Protel 99 SE license and somehow I learned how to design PCBs. The first board I designed was a binary clock that I still use. I then did a PIC programmer and later I built a combined development board and programmer for MPG.

I also designed the PCB for our fourth-year Capstone design project, which initially was a very boring implementation of a phase-locked loop, but became a lot more fun when I decided to make it programmable with a keypad and an LCD. I brought all these things to my BW Technologies job interview and proudly showed them off. For any students reading this, by the way, landing your first engineering job is probably 5% technical, 10% GPA, and 85% enthusiasm and demonstrated interest and achievement. It’s really boring to interview someone who has done nothing extracurricular.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: How long have you been designing embedded systems? When did you become interested?

JASON: My dad was a high school science teacher and my mom was a nurse, so I didn’t have a lot of technical influence growing up. I loved talking physics with my dad, and I’m one of the few engineers who can cook (thank you, mom).

Aside from really liking LEGO and dismantling anything electronic (without ever a hope of putting it back together but always wondering what all those funny looking components did), I barely demonstrated any interest in EE when I was young. But somehow I figured out in grade 12 that EE was probably what I should study at university.

I’m sure I still had visions of being a video game designer, but that nagging interest in learning what those funny components did steered me to EE instead of computer science. It wasn’t until my second year at university when someone gave me my first PIC microcontroller that I really knew that embedded was where I needed to be. That someone was a student named Sean Hum, a brilliant guy who is now an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

CIRCUIT CELLAR: Which new technologies excite you?

JASON: I particularly like the 2.4-GHz radio technologies that hold the potential to really make our environment interactive and intelligent. I think the world needs more intelligence to address the wasteful nature of what we have become whether it is by actively doing something like turning the lights or heat off when we’re not around, or by simply making us more aware of our surroundings. I love ANT+ and am just getting into BLE—obviously, smartphone integration will be critical.

I think technology will drive change in education and I hope to see (and perhaps be a driving force behind) a more cohesive existence between academics and the industry. I hope MPG becomes a model to the industry of what can be achieved with not a lot of financial resources, but has immense payback for employees who become mentors and students who can connect with the industry much earlier and thus get more from their degree programs and graduate with substantially higher capabilities.

You can read the entire interview in Circuit Cellar 289 (August 2014).

Q&A: Joe Grand – Engineer to the Core

From his grade-school Atari obsession and his teenage involvement in the L0pht Heavy Industries hacker group, to co-hosting Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! and starting his own company, Grand Idea Studio, Joe Grand has always maintained his passion for engineering. Joe and I recently discussed his journey and his lifelong love of all things engineering.—Nan Price, Associate Editor

NAN: Give us some background information. When and how did you discover electronics. What was your first project?

 

Joe Grand

JOE: I got involved with computers and electronics in 1982, when I was 7 years old. My first system was an Atari 400 computer, an Atari 810 floppy disk drive, and an Atari 830 acoustic coupler modem. I spent every waking hour playing computer games, trying to write my own programs, and connecting to local bulletin board systems. I was continually experimenting and questioning. I remember learning hexadecimal by poking around with a binary editor and figuring out how to replace names on game title screens with my own.
My brother, who is six years older than me, was also interested in computers and electronics. He would repair audio equipment, build telephone and computer gadgets, and disassemble broken electronics to scavenge them for parts. He had a cabinet that served as a junk bin for components and broken boards. When I did chores for him, like doing his laundry or cleaning his room, he’d let me pick something from the cabinet.

I was 13 years old when I hand-etched my first circuit board to make a “ring-busy device.” The device was simply a resistor across the tip and ring of the telephone line that had an RJ-11 plug for easy insertion/removal. It would make the telephone switch at the central office believe your phone was off the hook (thus, providing a busy signal to any incoming caller), but would still enable you to make outgoing calls. It was a fun, mischievous device, but also very practical to prevent annoying phone calls during dinner.

Right from the start, I had a strong emotional connection to all things electronic. I could just understand how technology was working even if I was unable to explain why. I knew early on that I wanted to be an electrical engineer. I wore this proudly on my sleeve, which didn’t help my ranking in the social hierarchy of elementary school!

NAN: What have been some of your influences?

JOE: In the early 1990s, when I was still a teenager, I joined a group called L0pht Heavy Industries (pronounced “loft” and spelled ell-zero-ph-t, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L0pht). The L0pht was a clubhouse for Boston-area hackers who had met on local bulletin board systems and it was one of the first publicly known “hackerspaces.” The L0pht simply started as a place to store computer equipment, tinker with technology, and hang out, but it ended up as seven close-knit friends changing the face of computer security vulnerability research and disclosure.

We would examine networks, software applications, and hardware products for security flaws. If we discovered a vulnerability, we would challenge the vendor to not only acknowledge the problem, but to fix it. This is now common practice, but back then, it was a feat practically unheard of.

I looked up to the other guys in the group. All were at least six years older than me and they became my mentors (whether they knew it or not) for nearly the next decade. They helped me to focus my energy on projects that would have positive impacts for other people. They also helped reinforce the hacker mindset—that is, not being afraid to try unconventional solutions to problems, pushing the limits of technology, being dedicated to learning through constant experimentation, and sharing my passion with others. Being involved in the L0pht was a very special time for me and shaped much of how I view the world.

NAN: You grew up and went to school in Boston. How did you end up in California?

JOE: Being in Boston for nearly 28 years left me with a lot of history (both good and bad). Everywhere I looked, I had a story, a feeling, or a connection to a time or event. I needed a clean slate. I had just left @stake, a computer security consulting firm that we started out of the L0pht, and my wife (girlfriend at the time) had just finished graduate school. She was also looking for new adventures, so we packed up our stuff and drove across the country not really knowing what we were going to do when we got to California. We lived in San Diego for a few years and ultimately settled in San Francisco when I started work on Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! television show.

San Francisco was a natural fit for us, and when the show ended, we decided to stay. Being close to Silicon Valley and its electronics stores (e.g., Jameco Electronics, WeirdStuff Warehouse, and HSC Electronic Supply) is quite useful, and I always get a thrill driving by the offices of chip vendors I use on a daily basis.

NAN: You started your own product design firm, Grand Idea Studio, in 2002. Tell us about the company.

JOE: Grand Idea Studio (www.grandideastudio.com) is a product design and licensing firm specializing in consumer/household devices and modules for electronics hobbyists. I started the company to create an environment that suited me best and would enable me to focus on what I loved to do. The majority of my work stems from ideas developed in-house or with my industrial design/mechanical engineering partners. I prefer to design simple, effective devices that serve a specific purpose. I’m all for using technology—but only where it’s needed—to make a product better.

Much of my time is spent building prototypes or proof-of-concepts of ideas (though many of those don’t ever see the light of day) that are sold and/or licensed to suitable partners. Some projects I’ll release as open source (usually through a Creative Commons Attribution license), so others can learn from my experiences and build upon my work to make something better.

I also teach a hardware hacking course at public and private events (www.grandideastudio.com/portfolio/hardware-hacking-training). The course focuses on teaching board-level hardware hacking and reverse-engineering techniques and skills. It’s a combination of a lecture and hands-on exercises covering the hardware hacking process, proper use of tools and test measurement equipment, circuit board analysis and modification, embedded security, and common hardware attack vectors. The course concludes with a final hardware hacking challenge in which students must apply what they’ve learned to defeat the security mechanism of a custom circuit board. Design engineers and computer security researchers don’t often join forces. Being both, I feel like it’s part of my responsibility to help make that connection.

NAN: Tell us about your engineering experience prior to Grand Idea Studio.

JOE: My most relevant and memorable engineering experience was when I worked for Continuum (formerly Design Continuum, www.continuuminnovation.com), a design and innovation consultancy based in West Newton, MA. I had worked on and off at the company during college and took a full-time engineering position in 1998. I was one of only two electrical engineers. We worked very closely with industrial designers, mechanical engineers, manufacturers, and clients to create innovative new products. Some key projects I contributed to were the A.T. Cross iPen (an early digital writing tablet) and the FluidSense FS-01 portable infusion pump (voted one of the best inventions of 2000 by Time magazine). It was during my time at Continuum that I learned about the product development and production manufacturing processes and sharpened my skills as an engineer.

NAN: Tell us about your experience working on Discovery Channel’s Prototype This! television show. Do you have a favorite project?

 

Prototype This! Giant Boxing Robot

JOE: Prototype This! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prototype_This!) was a short-lived engineering entertainment show that followed the real-life design process of a unique prototype each episode. Although we only filmed for one season (comprising 13 episodes), the show gained a “cult” status of sorts among engineers and makers. It aired on Discovery Channel in the US in late 2008, but is now airing elsewhere throughout the world. The show is also available on Netflix, making it accessible to viewers who may have missed the show the first time around.

To be clear, I’m an engineer to the core, and I never had any intention of being in front of a camera as part of my job. But, the opportunity to show off engineering to the world in a way that was fun, entertaining, and somewhat educational seemed too good to pass up. Producing the show turned out to be a difficult and frustrating process, as we not only had to be on-screen television hosts trying to convey complex, technical builds in a way most viewers would understand, but we also had to actually engineer, design, build, and test the prototypes.

Prototype This! The PyroPack

We ended up building ridiculously crazy contraptions including “Mind Controlled Car” (Episode 1), giant 10’ “Boxing Robots” (Episode 2), and a “Traffic Busting Truck” that could elevate itself over other traffic and move in any direction (Episode 3). Each build had its own special flavor and design challenges and I actually enjoyed working on all of them. From an engineering point of view, I was most proud of the AirTrax control system (Episode 3), the PyroPack (Episode 6: “Robotic Firefighter Assistant”), and the underwater ROV controller (Episode 10: “Virtual Sea Adventure”). All of the documentation for my contributions to the builds, including schematics, source code, and development notes, is available at www.grandideastudio.com/prototype-this.

Ultimately, the show proved to be unsustainable (from financial and time perspectives), but it was an unforgettable experience. The best thing is how the show continues to inspire future engineers. Nearly every day I receive e-mails from viewers asking for details about a particular build or what it takes to become an engineer, and I do my best to point them in the right direction.

NAN: You’ve designed dozens of things—from computer memory-imaging tools to children’s products to medical devices. Tell us about your design process. Do you have a favorite project?

JOE: I think my design process is very typical. I start by identifying and sourcing key components for the project. I’ll put together a preliminary block diagram and then build a proof-of-concept or prototype using a breadboard or PCB (depending on complexity and/or other constraints).

If the design is an embedded system that requires firmware, I’ll start writing it as soon as the prototype hardware is ready. This lets me validate that each hardware subsystem behaves as required and, if necessary, I can easily make changes to the design.

Once the hardware design has been sufficiently proven, I’ll move to a production design and form factor. Then, I’ll finish up the firmware, refine my documentation (which I work on throughout the process), and either release the design or move to production. If things go wrong, which they can sometimes do, then I may make multiple iterations of a design before it’s ready for production.

When I’m in the throes of the design process, I’m obsessed with the work. I think about it constantly—on my daily runs, in the shower, at bedtime, and sometimes while sleeping. I try to anticipate worst-case scenarios, component tolerances, failure modes, and how the end user will interact with the device (both correctly and incorrectly).

Every project I work on is currently my favorite and each project comes with its own challenges, successes, and failures. As soon as I’m done with one project, I’m looking for the next thing to do.

DEFCON 17 Badge

I’m particularly fond of my work on the DEF CON badges. Held every summer, DEF CON (www.defcon.org) is the largest and oldest continuously running hacker event of its kind. It’s a mix of good guys, bad guys, government officials, and everyone in between, all having fun, sharing information, seeing old friends, and learning new things.

For five years (2006–2010) I had the honor of designing the official conference badges, which were artistic, fully functional electronic devices. I believe we were the first large-scale event to provide electronic badges to attendees. It changed what people have come to expect from a conference badge. The challenge was to create something that scrutinizing hackers would enjoy, appreciate, play with, and modify, while staying within the budget (around $10 per badge in 10,000-unit quantities).

The various badge designs have displayed custom scrolling text messages, turned off your television, transferred files over infrared, pulsed to music using fast Fourier transforms (FFTs), and provided USB functionality for computer control. They have incorporated technologies such as capacitive touch, RGB LEDs, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) based microphones, “zero power” cholesteric LCDs, and microcontrollers ranging in size from tiny six-pin devices to powerful 64-pin behemoths. The physical PCBs used extremely complicated mechanical outlines, multiple layers of custom solder mask colors, and laser etching onto single-sided aluminum substrate PCBs.

DEFCON 18 Badge Backside

DEFCON 18 Badge close-up

Full details about the badges, along with schematics, source code, pictures, attendee hacks, and related articles, are available at www.grandideastudio.com/portfolio/defcon-x-badge (where x = 14, 15, 16, 17, 18).

NAN: Are you currently working on or planning any projects? Can you tell us about them?

JOE: There will (hopefully) never be a shortage of cool projects to work on. I like to keep multiple plates spinning at one time, though I can only talk about some of those plates.
At the recent 2013 DESIGN West conference, I released the JTAGulator (http://jtagulator.com), which is an open-source, Parallax Propeller-based hardware tool that assists in identifying on-chip debug (OCD) and/or programming connections from test points, vias, or component pads on a target device. Discovering available interfaces is a common step in hardware hacking or reverse engineering, as they are usually left unprotected and can be used to extract memory or affect the state of a system on the fly.
A few similar tools exist, but they are either incomplete, closed source, or proof of concept. I wanted to create something that could be used in actual, real-world situations and that would help new people get involved in hardware hacking. The tool will also help to highlight the insecurity of leaving OCD interfaces enabled in production devices and hopefully serve as a catalyst for change in the engineering community (where convenience often trumps security). The JTAGulator currently supports JTAG and I will be making continued refinements to the firmware to add support for additional OCD protocols.

Last year, I finished up the Emic 2 Text-to-Speech module (www.grandideastudio.com/portfolio/emic-2-text-to-speech-module), which has just started to appear in lots of interesting projects. The module is a self-contained, multi-language voice synthesizer that converts a stream of digital text into natural-sounding speech. It’s based on the Epson S1V30120 text-to-speech (TTS) IC, which uses the familiar DECtalk engine and is easy to interface to any microcontroller through a standard serial interface. Though embedded speech synthesis has been around for a while, there was no small form factor, low-cost solution readily available. So, I made one. A search for “Emic 2” on YouTube will result in various projects that use the module, including a tweet reader, a color-to-voice converter, a talking thermometer, an interaction with Apple’s Siri, and some singing demonstrations.

Some other projects I have planned include experimenting with PCB reverse-engineering techniques, hacking with a BeagleBone Black and OpenCV, and designing a new RFID system.

NAN: What do you consider to be the “next big thing” in the embedded design industry?

JOE: I’ve been increasingly concerned with the improper and (sometimes) socially unacceptable use of technology. From cameras at every street corner to mobile devices tracking your every move to Facebook and Google (among others) controlling your personal data, privacy has become something we’re slowly (and willingly?) losing. It’s a slippery slope that I don’t think many people will notice until it’s too late. The problem is largely driven by our society’s mass adoption of technology and taking that technology for granted. As an engineer and hacker, I strive to educate others about the unintended consequences of blindly using technology and hope it will make them more aware.