Doing the Robot, 21st-Century Style

Growing up in the 1970s, the first robot I remember was Rosie from The Jetsons. In the 1980s, I discovered Transformers, which were touted as “robots in disguise,” I imitated Michael Jackson’s version of “the robot,” and (unbeknownst to me) the Arthrobot surgical robot was first developed. This was years before Honda debuted ASIMO, the first humanoid robot, in 2004.

“In the 1970s, microprocessors gave me hope that real robots would eventually become part of our future,” RobotBASIC codeveloper John Blankenship told me in a 2013 interview. It appears that the “future” may already be here.

Honda's ASIMO humanoid robot

Honda’s ASIMO humanoid robot

Welcome to the 21st century. Technology is becoming “smarter,“ as evidenced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2014, which took place in January. The show unveiled a variety of smartphone-controlled robots and drones as well as wireless tracking devices.

Circuit Cellar’s columnists and contributors have been busy with their own developments. Steve Lubbers wondered if robots could be programmed to influence each other’s behavior. He used Texas Instruments’s LaunchPad hardware and a low-cost radio link to build a group of robots to test his theory. The results are on p. 18.

RobotBASIC’s Blankenship wanted to program robots more quickly. His article explains how he uses robot simulation to decrease development time (p. 30).

The Internet of Things (IoT), which relies on embedded technology for communication, is also making advancements. According to information technology research and advisory company Gartner, by 2020, there will be close to 26 billion devices on the IoT.

With the IoT, nothing is out of the realm of a designer’s imagination. For instance, if you’re not at home, you can use IoT-based platforms (such as the one columnist Jeff Bachiochi writes about on p. 58) to preheat your oven or turn off your sprinklers when it starts to rain.

Meanwhile, I will program my crockpot and try to explain to my 8-year-old how I survived childhood without the Internet.

Ohio-Based “Design Dungeon”

“Steve Ciarcia had a ‘Circuit Cellar.’ I have a ‘Design Dungeon,’” Steve Lubbers says about his Dayton, OH-based workspace.

“An understanding wife and a spare room in the house allocated a nice place for a workshop. Too bad the engineer doesn’t keep it nice and tidy! I am amazed by the nice clean workspaces that have previously been published! So for those of you who need a visit from FEMA, don’t feel bad. Take a look at my mess.”

Steve Lubbers describes his workbench as a “work in progress.”

Steve Lubbers describes his workbench as a “work in progress.”

The workspace is a creative mess that has produced dozens of projects for Circuit Cellar contests. From the desk to the floor to the closet, the space is stocked with equipment and projects in various stages.

Lubbers writes:

The doorway is marked “The Dungeon.” The first iteration of The Dungeon was in my parents’ basement. When I bought a house, the workshop and the sign moved to my new home.

The door is a requirement when company comes to visit. Once you step inside, you will see why. The organizational plan seems to be a pile for everything, and everything in a pile. Each new project seems to reduce the amount of available floor space.

Lubbers_Floor

Lubbers’s organization plan is simple: “A pile for everything, and everything in a pile.”

“High-tech computing” is accomplished on a PDP-11/23. This boat anchor still runs to heat the room, but my iPod has more computing abilities! My nieces and nephews don’t really believe in 8” disks, but I have proof.

The desk (messy of course) holds a laptop computer and a ham radio transceiver. Several of my Circuit Cellar projects have been related to amateur radio. A short list of my ham projects includes a CW keyer, an antenna controller, and a PSK-31 (digital communications) interface.

Lubbers_Desk

Is there a desk under there?

My workbench has a bit of clear space for my latest project and fragments of previous projects are in attendance. The skull in the back right is wearing the prototype for my Honorable Mention in the Texas Instruments Design Stellaris 2010 contest. It’s a hands-free USB mouse. The red tube was the fourth-place winner in the microMedic 2013 National Contest.

Front and center is the prototype for my March 2014 Circuit Cellar article on robotics. Test equipment is a mix of old and new. Most of the newer equipment has been funded by past Circuit Cellar contests and articles.

Lubbers_Hero

“My wife allows my Hero Jr. robot to visit the living room. He is housebroken after all,” Lubbers says.

The closet is a “graveyard” for all of the contest kits I have received, models I would like to build, and other contraptions the wife doesn’t allow to invade the rest of the house. (She is pretty considerate because you will find my Hero Jr. robot in the living room.)

At one time, The Dungeon served as my home office. For about five years I had the ideal “down the hall” commute. A stocked lab helped justify my ability to work from home.

When management pulled the plug on working remotely, the lab got put to work developing about a dozen projects for Circuit Cellar contests. There has been a dry spell since my last contest entry, so these days I am helping develop the software for the ham radio Satellite FOX-1. My little “CubeSat” will operate as a ham radio transponder and a platform for university experiments when it launches in late 2014. Since I will probably never go to space myself, the next best thing is launching my code into orbit. It’s a good thing that FOX-1 is smaller than a basketball. If it was bigger, it might not fit on my workbench!

Lubbers’s article about building a swarm of robots will appear in Circuit Cellar’s March issue. To learn more about Lubbers, read our 2013 interview.

Q&A: Hacker, Roboticist, and Website Host

Dean “Dino” Segovis is a self-taught hardware hacker and maker from Pinehurst, NC. In 2011, he developed the Hack A Week website, where he challenges himself to create and post weekly DIY projects. Dino and I recently talked about some of his favorite projects and products. —Nan Price, Associate Editor

 

NAN: You have been posting a weekly project on your website, Hack A Week, for almost three years. Why did you decide to create the website?

Dean "Dino" Segovis at his workbench

Dean “Dino” Segovis at his workbench

DINO: One day on the Hack A Day website I saw a post that caught my attention. It was seeking a person to fill a potential position as a weekly project builder and video blogger. It was offering a salary of $35,000 a year, which was pretty slim considering you had to live in Santa Monica, CA. I thought, “I could do that, but not for $35,000 a year.”

That day I decided I was going to challenge myself to come up with a project and video each week and see if I could do it for at least one year. I came up with a simple domain name, www.hackaweek.com, bought it, and put up a website within 24 h.

My first project was a 555 timer-based project that I posted on April 1, 2011, on my YouTube channel, “Hack A Week TV.” I made it through the first year and just kept going. I currently have more than 3.2 million video views and more than 19,000 subscribers from all over the world.

NAN: Hack A Week features quite a few robotics projects. How are the robots built? Do you have a favorite?

rumblebot head

Dino’s very first toy robot hack was the Rumble robot. The robot featured an Arduino that sent PWM to the on-board H-bridge in the toy to control the motors for tank steering. A single PING))) sensor helped with navigation.

Rumble robot

The Rumble robot

DINO: I usually use an Arduino as the robot’s controller and Roomba gear motors for locomotion. I have built a few others based on existing wheeled motorized toys and I’ve made a few with the Parallax Propeller chip.

My “go-to” sensor is usually the Parallax PING))) ultrasonic sensor. It’s easy to connect and work with and the code is straightforward. I also use bump sensors, which are just simple contact switches, because they mimic the way some insects navigate.

Nature is a great designer and much can be learned from observing it. I like to keep my engineering simple because it’s robust and easy to repair. The more you complicate a design, the more it can do. But it also becomes more likely that something will fail. Failure is not a bad thing if it leads to a better design that overcomes the failure. Good design is a balance of these things. This is why I leave my failures and mistakes in my videos to show how I arrive at the end result through some trial and error.

My favorite robot would be “Photon: The Video and Photo Robot” that I built for the 2013 North Carolina Maker Faire. It’s my masterpiece robot…so far.

NAN: Tell us a little more about Photon. Did you encounter any challenges while developing the robot?

Photon awaits with cameras rolling, ready to go forth and record images.

Photon awaits with cameras rolling, ready to go forth and record images.

DINO: The idea for Photon first came to me in February 2013. I had been playing with the Emic 2 text-to-speech module from Parallax and I thought it would be fun to use it to give a robot speech capability. From there the idea grew to include cameras that would record and stream to the Internet what the robot saw and then give the robot the ability to navigate through the crowd at Maker Faire.

I got a late start on the project and ended up burning the midnight oil to get it finished in time. One of the bigger challenges was in designing a motorized base that would reliably move Photon across a cement floor.

The problem was in dealing with elevation changes on the floor covering. What if Photon encountered a rug or an extension cord?

I wanted to drive it with two gear motors salvaged from a Roomba 4000 vacuum robot to enable tank-style steering. A large round base with a caster at the front and rear worked well, but it would only enable a small change in surface elevation. I ended up using that design and made sure that it stayed away from anything that might get it in trouble.

The next challenge was giving Photon some sensors so it could navigate and stay away from obstacles. I used one PING))) sensor mounted on its head and turned the entire torso into a four-zone bump sensor, as was a ring around the base. The ring pushed on a series of 42 momentary contact switches connected together in four zones. All these sensors were connected to an Arduino running some simple code that turned Photon away from obstacles it encountered. Power was supplied by a motorcycle battery mounted on the base inside the torso.

The head held two video cameras, two smartphones in camera mode, and one GoPro camera. One video camera and the GoPro were recording in HD; the other video camera was recording in time-lapse mode. The two smartphones streamed live video, one via 4G to a Ustream channel and the other via Wi-Fi. The Ustream worked great, but the Wi-Fi failed due to interference.

Photon’s voice came from the Emic 2 connected to another Arduino sending it lines of text to speak. The audio was amplified by a small 0.5-W LM386 amplifier driving a 4” speaker. An array of blue LEDs mounted on the head illuminated with the brightness modulated by the audio signal when Photon spoke. The speech was just a lot of lines of text running in a timed loop.

Photon’s brain includes two Arduinos and an LM386 0.5-W audio amplifier with a sound-to-voltage circuit added to drive the mouth LED array. Photon’s voice comes from a Parallax Emic 2 text-to-speech module.

Photon’s brain includes two Arduinos and an LM386 0.5-W audio amplifier with a sound-to-voltage circuit added to drive the mouth LED array. Photon’s voice comes from a Parallax Emic 2 text-to-speech module.

Connecting all of these things together was very challenging. Each component needed a regulated power supply, which I built using LM317T voltage regulators. The entire current draw with motors running was about 1.5 A. The battery lasted about 1.5 h before needing a recharge. I had an extra battery so I could just swap them out during the quick charge cycle and keep downtime to a minimum.

I finished the robot around 11:00 PM the night before the event. It was a hit! The videos Photon recorded are fascinating to watch. The look of wonder on people’s faces, the kids jumping up to see themselves in the monitors, the smiles, and the interaction are all very interesting.

NAN: Many of your Hack A Week projects include Parallax products. Why Parallax?

DINO: Parallax is a great electronics company that caters to the DIY hobbyist. It has a large knowledge base on its website as well as a great forum with lots of people willing to help and share their projects.

About a year ago Parallax approached me with an offer to supply me with a product in exchange for featuring it in my video projects on Hack A Week. Since I already used and liked the product, it was a perfect offer. I’ll be posting more Parallax-based projects throughout the year and showcasing a few of them on the ELEV-8 quadcopter as a test platform.

NAN: Let’s change topics. You built an Electronic Fuel Injector Tester, which is featured on HomemadeTools.net. Can you explain how the 555 timer chips are used in the tester?

DINO: 555 timers are great! They can be used in so many projects in so many ways. They’re easy to understand and use and require only a minimum of external components to operate and configure.

The 555 can run in two basic modes: monostable and astable.

Dino keeps this fuel injector tester in his tool box at work. He’s a European auto technician by day.

Dino keeps this fuel injector tester in his tool box at work. He’s a European auto technician by day.

An astable circuit produces a square wave. This is a digital waveform with sharp transitions between low (0 V) and high (+ V). The durations of the low and high states may be different. The circuit is called astable because it is not stable in any state: the output is continually changing between “low” and “high.”

A monostable circuit produces a single output pulse when triggered. It is called a monostable because it is stable in just one state: “output low.” The “output high” state is temporary.

The injector tester, which is a monostable circuit, is triggered by pressing the momentary contact switch. The single-output pulse turns on an astable circuit that outputs a square-wave pulse train that is routed to an N-channel MOSFET. The MOSFET turns on and off and outputs 12 V to the injector. A flyback diode protects the MOSFET from the electrical pulse that comes from the injector coil when the power is turned off and the field collapses. It’s a simple circuit that can drive any injector up to 5 A.

This is a homebrew PCB for Dino's fuel injector tester. Two 555s drive a MOSFET that switches the injector.

This is a homebrew PCB for Dino’s fuel injector tester. Two 555s drive a MOSFET that switches the injector.

NAN: You’ve been “DIYing” for quite some time. How and when did your interest begin?

DINO: It all started in 1973 when I was 13 years old. I used to watch a TV show on PBS called ZOOM, which was produced by WGBH in Boston. Each week they had a DIY project they called a “Zoom-Do,” and one week the project was a crystal radio. I ordered the Zoom-Do instruction card and set out to build one. I got everything put together but it didn’t work! I checked and rechecked everything, but it just wouldn’t work.

I later realized why. The instructions said to use a “cat’s whisker,” which I later found out was a thin piece of wire. I used a real cat’s whisker clipped from my cat! Anyway, that project sparked something inside me (pun intended). I was hooked! I started going house to house asking people if they had any broken or unwanted radios and or TVs I could have so I could learn about electronics and I got tons of free stuff to mess with.

My mom and dad were pretty cool about letting me experiment with it all. I was taking apart TV sets, radios, and tape recorders in my room and actually fixing a few of them. I was in love with electronics. I had an intuition for understanding it. I eventually found some ham radio guys who were great mentors and I learned a lot of good basic electronics from them.

NAN: Is there a particular electronics engineer, programmer, or designer who has inspired the work you do today?

DINO: Forrest Mims was a great inspiration in my early 20s. I got a big boost from his “Engineer’s Notebooks.” The simple way he explained things and his use of graph paper to draw circuit designs really made learning about electronics easy and fun. I still use graph paper to draw my schematics during the design phase and for planning when building a prototype on perf board. I’m not interested in any of the software schematic programs because most of my projects are simple and easy to draw. I like my pencil-and-paper approach.

NAN: What was the last electronics-design related product you purchased and what type of project did you use it with?

DINO: An Arduino Uno. I used two of these in the Photon robot.

NAN: What new technologies excite you and why?

DINO: Organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). They’ll totally change the way we manufacture and use digital displays.

I envision a day when you can go buy your big-screen TV that you’ll bring home in a cardboard tube, unroll it, and place it on the wall. The processor and power supply will reside on the floor, out of the way, and a single cable will go to the panel. The power consumption will be a fraction of today’s LCD or plasma displays and they’ll be featherweight by comparison. They’ll be used to display advertising on curved surfaces anywhere you like. Cell phone displays will be curved and flexible.

How about a panoramic set of virtual reality goggles or a curved display in a flight simulator? Once the technology gets out of the “early adopter” phase, prices will come down and you’ll own that huge TV for a fraction of what you pay now. One day we might even go to a movie and view it on a super-huge OLED panorama screen.

NAN: Final question. If you had a full year and a good budget to work on any design project you wanted, what would you build?

DINO: There’s a project I’ve wanted to build for some time now: A flight simulator based on the one used in Google Earth. I would use a PC to run the simulator and build a full-on seat-inside enclosure with all the controls you would have in a jet airplane. There are a lot of keyboard shortcuts for a Google flight simulator that could be triggered by switches connected to various controls (e.g., rudder pedals, flaps, landing gear, trim tabs, throttle, etc.). I would use the Arduino Leonardo as the controller for the peripheral switches because it can emulate a USB keyboard. Just program it, plug it into a USB port along with a joystick, build a multi-panel display (or use that OLED display I dream of), and go fly!

Google Earth’s flight simulator also lets you fly over the surface of Mars! Not only would this be fun to build and fly, it would also be a great educational tool. It’s definitely on the Hack A Week project list!

Editor’s Note: This article also appears in the Circuit Cellar’s upcoming March issue, which focuses on robotics. The March issue will soon be available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

 

Innovation Space: A Workspace for Prototyping, Programming, and Writing

RobotBASIC co-developer John Blankenship accomplishes a lot in his “cluttered” Vero Beach, FL-based workspace.

JohnBlankenship

John Blankenship in his workspace, where he develops, designs, and writes.

He develops software, designs hardware, packages robot parts for sale, and write books and magazine articles. Thus, his workspace isn’t always neat and tidy, he explained.

“The walls are covered with shelves filled with numerous books, a wide variety of parts, miscellaneous tools, several pieces of test equipment, and many robot prototypes,” he noted.

“Most people would probably find my space cluttered and confining, but for me it comforting knowing everything I might need is close at hand.”

Blankenship co-developed RobotBASIC with Samuel Mishal, a friend and talented programmer. The introductory programming language is geared toward high school-level students.

This PCB makes it easy to build a RobotBASIC-compatible robot.

This PCB makes it easy to build a RobotBASIC-compatible robot.

You can read Blankenship’s article, “Using a Simulated Robot to Decrease Development Time,” in the March 2014 edition of Circuit Cellar. He details how implementing a robotic simulation can reduce development time. Here’s an excerpt:

If you have ever built a robot, you know the physical construction and electronic aspects are only the first step. The real work begins when you start programming your creation.

A typical starting point is to develop a library of subroutines that implement basic behaviors. Later, the routines can be combined to create more complex behaviors and eventually full-blown applications. For example, navigational skills (e.g., hugging a wall, following a line, or finding a beacon) can serve as basic building blocks for tasks such as mowing a yard, finding a charging station, or delivering drinks to guests at a party. Developing basic behaviors can be difficult though, especially if they must work for a variety of situations. For instance, a behavior that enables a robot to transverse a hallway to find a specified doorway and pass through it should work properly with different-width hallways and doorways. Furthermore, the robot should at least attempt to autonomously contend with problems arising from the imprecise movements associated with most hobby robots.

Such problems can generally be solved with a closed-loop control system that continually modifies the robot’s movements based on sensor readings. Unfortunately, sensor readings in a real-world environment are often just as flawed as the robot’s movements. For example, tray reflections from ultrasonic or infrared sensors can produce erroneous sensor readings. Even when the sensors are reading correctly, faulty data can be obtained due to unexpected environmental conditions. These types of problems are generally random and are therefore difficult to detect and identify because the offending situations cannot easily be duplicated. A robot simulator can be a valuable tool in such situations.

Do you want to share images of your workspace, hackspace, or “circuit cellar”? Send your images and space info to editor@circuitcellar.com.

A Visit to the World Maker Faire in New York

If you missed the World Maker Faire in New York City, you can pick up Circuit Cellar’s February issue for highlights of the innovative projects and hackers represented there.Veteran electronics DIYer and magazine columnist Jeff Bachiochi is the perfect guide.

“The World Maker Faire is part science fair and part country fair,” Bachiochi says. “Makers are DIYers. The maker movement empowers everyone to build, repair, remake, hack, and adapt all things. The Maker Faire shares the experiences of makers who have been involved in this important process… Social media keeps us in constant contact and can educate, but it can’t replace the feeling you can get from hands-on live interaction with people and the things they have created.

Photo 1: This pole-climbing robot is easy to deploy at a moment’s notice. There is no need for a ladder to get emergency communication antennas up high where they can be most effective.

Photo 1: This pole-climbing robot is easy to deploy at a moment’s notice. There is no need for a ladder to get emergency communication antennas up high where they can be most effective.

“It should be noted that not all Maker Faire exhibitors are directly involved with technology. Some non-technological projects on display included the ‘Art Car’ from Pittsburgh, which is an annual revival of an old clunker turned into a drivable art show on wheels. There was also the life-size ‘Mouse Trap’ game, which was quite the contraption and just plain fun, especially if you grew up playing the original game.”

Bachiochi’s article introduces you to a wide variety of innovators, hackers, and hackerspaces.

“The 721st Mechanized Contest Battalion (MCB) is an amateur radio club from Warren County, NJ, that combines amateur (ham) radio with electronics, engineering, mechanics, building, and making,” Bachiochi says. “The club came to the Maker Faire to demonstrate its Emergency Antenna Platform System (E-APS) robot. The robot, which is designed for First Responder Organizations, will turn any parking lot lamppost into an instant antenna tower (see Photo 1).”

The keen and growing interest in 3-D printing as a design tool was evident at the Maker Faire.

“Working by day as an analog/mixed-signal IC design engineer for Cortina Systems in Canada, Andrew Plumb needed a distraction. In the evenings, Plumb uses a MakerBot 3-D printer to create 3-D designs of plastic, like thousands of others experimenting with 3-D printing,” Bachiochi says. “Plumb was not satisfied with simply printing plastic widgets. In fact, he showed me a few of his projects, which include printing plastic onto paper and cloth (see Photo 2).”

Photo 2: Andrew Plumb showed me some unique ideas he was experimenting with using one of his 3-D printers. By printing the structural frame directly on tissue paper, ultra-light parts are practically ready to fly.

Photo 2: Andrew Plumb showed me some unique ideas he was experimenting with using one of his 3-D printers. By printing the structural frame directly on tissue paper, ultra-light parts are practically ready to fly.

Also in the 3-D arena, Bachiochi encountered some innovative new products.

“It was just a matter of time until someone introduced a personal scanner to create digital files of 3-D objects. The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first I’ve seen (see Photo 3),” Bachiochi says. “It uses a laser, a turntable, and a CMOS camera to pick off 3-D points and output a STL file. The scanner will create a 3-D image from an object up to 8″ in height and width. There is no third axis scanning, so you must plan your model’s orientation to achieve the best results. Priced less than most 3-D printers, this will be a hot item for 3-D printing enthusiasts.”

Bachiochi’s article includes a lengthy section about “other interesting stuff” and people at the Maker Faire, including the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (Public Lab), a community that uses inexpensive DIY techniques to investigate environmental concerns.

Photo 3: The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first production scanner I’ve seen that will directly provide files compatible with the 3-D printing process. This is a long-awaited addition to MakerBot’s line of 3-D printers. (Photo credit: Spencer Higgins)

Photo 3: The MakerBot Digitizer Desktop 3-D Scanner is the first production scanner I’ve seen that will directly provide files compatible with the 3-D printing process.  (Photo credit: Spencer Higgins)

“For instance, the New York chapter featured two spectrometers, a you-fold-it cardboard version and a near-infrared USB camera-based kit,” Bachiochi says. “This community of educators, technologists, scientists, and community organizers believes they can promote action, intervention, and awareness through a participatory research model in which you can play a part.”

At this family-friendly event, Bachiochi met a family that “creates” together.

“Asheville, NC-based Beatty Robotics is not your average robotics company,” Bachiochi says. “The Beatty team is a family that likes to share fun robotic projects with friends, family, and other roboticists around the world. The team consists of Dad (Robert) and daughters Camille ‘Lunamoth’ and Genevieve ‘Julajay.’ The girls have been mentored in electronics, software programming, and workshop machining. They do some unbelievable work (see Photo 4). Everyone has a hand in designing, building, and programming their fleet of robots. The Hall of Science is home to one of their robots, the Mars Rover.”

There is much more in Bachiochi’s five-page look at the Maker Faire, including resources for finding and participating in a hackerspace community. The February issue including Bachiochi’s articles is available for membership download or single-issue purchase.

Photo 4: Beatty Robotics is a family of makers that produces some incredible models. Young Camille Beatty handles the soldering, but is also well-versed in machining and other areas of expertise.

Photo 4: Beatty Robotics is a family of makers that produces some incredible models. Young Camille Beatty handles the soldering, but is also well-versed in machining and other areas of expertise.