Q&A: Robotics Mentor and Champion

Peter Matteson, a Senior Project Engineer at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, CT, has a passion for robotics. We recently discussed how he became involved with mentoring a high school robotics team, the types of robots the team designs, and the team’s success.—Nan Price, Associate Editor


NAN: You mentor a FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics team for a local high school. How did you become involved?

Peter Matteson

Peter Matteson

PETER: I became involved in FIRST in late 2002 when one of my fraternity brothers who I worked with at the time mentioned that FIRST was looking for new mentors to help the team the company sponsored. I was working at what was then known as UTC Power (sold off to ClearEdge Power Systems last year) and the company had sponsored Team 177 Bobcat Robotics since 1995.

After my first year mentoring the kids and experiencing the competition, I got hooked. I loved the competition and strategy of solving a new game each year and designing and building a robot. I enjoyed working with the kids, teaching them how to design and build mechanisms and strategize the games.

The FIRST team’s 2010 robot is shown.

The FIRST team’s 2010 robot is shown.

A robot’s articulating drive train is tested  on an obstacle (bump) at the 2010 competition.

A robot’s articulating drive train is tested on an obstacle (bump) at the 2010 competition.

NAN: What types of robots has your team built?

A temporary control board was used to test the drive base at the 2010 competition.

A temporary control board was used to test the drive base at the 2010 competition.

PETER: Every robot we make is purposely built for a specific game the year we build it. The robots have varied from arm robots with a 15’ reach to catapults that launch a 40” diameter ball, to Frisbee throwers, to Nerf ball shooters.

They have varied in drive train from 4 × 4 to 6 × 6 to articulating 8 × 8. Their speeds have varied from 6 to 16 fps.

NAN: What types of products do you use to build the robots? Do you have any favorites?

PETER: We use a variant of the Texas Instruments (TI) cRIO electronics kit for the controller, as is required per the FIRST competition rules. The motors and motor controllers we use are also mandated to a few choices. We prefer VEX Robotics VEXPro Victors, but we also design with the TI Jaguar motor controllers. For the last few years, we used a SparkFun CMUcam webcam for the vision system. We build with Grayhill encoders, various inexpensive limit switches, and gyro chips.

The team designed a prototype minibot.

The team designed a prototype minibot.

For pneumatics we utilize compressors from Thomas and VIAIR. Our cylinders are primarily from Bimba, but we also use Parker and SMC. For valves we use SMC and Festo. We usually design with clipart plastic or stainless accumulator tanks. Our gears and transmissions come from AndyMark, VEX Robotics’s VEXPro, and BaneBots.

The AndyMark shifter transmissions were a mainstay of ours until last year when we tried the VEXPro transmissions for the first time. Over the years, we have utilized many of the planetary transmissions from AndyMark, VEX Robotics, and BaneBots. We have had good experience with all the manufacturers. BaneBots had a shaky start, but it has vastly improved its products.

We have many other odds and ends we’ve discovered over the years for specific needs of the games. Those are a little harder to describe because they tend to be very specific, but urethane belting is useful in many ways.

NAN: Has your team won any competitions?

Peter’s FIRST team is pictured at the 2009 championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA. (Peter is standing fourth from the right.)

Peter’s FIRST team is pictured at the 2009 championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, GA. (Peter is standing fourth from the right.)

PETER: My team is considered one of the most successful in FIRST. We have won four regional-level competitions. We have always shined at the competition’s championship level when the 400 teams from the nine-plus countries that qualify vie for the championship.

In my years on the team, we have won the championship twice (2007 and 2010), been the championship finalist once (2011), won our division, made the final four a total of six times (2006–2011), and were division finalists in 2004.

A FIRST team member works on a robot “in the pits” at the 2011 Hartford, CT, regional competition.

A FIRST team member works on a robot “in the pits” at the 2011 Hartford, CT, regional competition.

Team 177 was the only team to make the final four more than three years in a row, setting the bar at six consecutive trips. It was also the only team to make seven trips to the final four, including in 2001.

NAN: What is your current occupation?

PETER: I am a Senior Project Engineer at Pratt & Whitney. I oversee and direct a team of engineers designing components for commercial aircraft propulsion systems.

NAN: How and when did you become interested in robotics?

PETER: I have been interested in robotics for as long as I can remember. The tipping point was probably when I took an industrial robotics course in college. That was when I really developed a curiosity about what I could do with robots.

The industrial robots course started with basic programming robots for tasks. We had a welding robot we taught the weld path and it determined on its own how to get between points.

We also worked with programming a robot to install light bulbs and then determine if the bulbs were working properly.

In addition to practical labs such as those, we also had to design the optimal robot for painting a car and figure out how to program it. We basically had to come up with a proposal for how to design and build the robot from scratch.

This robot from the 2008 competition holds a 40” diameter ball for size reference.

This robot from the 2008 competition holds a 40” diameter ball for size reference.

NAN: What advice do you have for engineers or students who are designing robots or robotic systems?

PETER: My advice is to clearly set your requirements at the beginning of the project and then do some research into how other people have accomplished them. Use that inspiration as a stepping-off point. From there, you need to build a prototype. I like to use wood, cardboard, and other materials to build prototypes. After this you can iterate to improve your design until it performs exactly as expected.

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.

Maker Faire in Rome Highlights Big News For Arduino Fans

If you like working on Arduino projects, you probably welcome some big news on two Linux-capable boards that came out of the recent Maker Faire in Rome.

Arduino founder Massimo Banzi announced a new collaboration with Intel called the Intel Galileo, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller board that uses Intel’s 32-bit Pentium-class




With the Galileo’s small, 32-bit Quark processor, the collaboration gives Intel a toehold in the low-power device market, while providing Arduino-compatible boards that have more processing power. (Arduino devices currently use Atmel’s 8-bit microcontrollers.)

An October 3 Arduino blog post by Zoe Romano says the Galileo is “a great tool for quickly prototyping simple interactive designs like LED light displays that respond to social media, or for tackling more complex projects from automating home appliances to building life-size robots that you control from your smartphone.”

Also at the Maker Faire, Banzi and Texas Instruments spokesmen discussed their collaboration on Arduino TRE, a next-generation Arduino SBC based on TI’s Sitara AM335x ARM Cortex-A8 processor.

Arduino TRE is the “most powerful Arduino to date” and will be able to run full Linux, according to another Arduino blog post by Romano.

“Arduino developers will get up to 100 times more performance with the Sitara-processor-based TRE than they do on the Arduino Leonardo or Uno,”  Romano says. For example, the Linux Arduino will be able to run high-speed communications and high-performance desktop applications.

Intel may be closely  following  news about the Arduino TRE, Stephen Shankland suggests in his October 5 article on the c/net website.

“The Arduino Tre speed boost comes from its Texas Instruments Sitara AM335x processor, which is based on the Cortex-A8 design from ARM Holdings,” Shankland’s article says. “Because ARM chips are nearly universal in the smartphone market that Intel has been struggling to penetrate, they’re a top competitive concern for Intel, and TI’s move means it might not be Intel’s Pentium-derived Quark chips that hobbyists end up with when looking for their next widget.”

However the competition plays out, it all seems nothing but good news for electronics tinkerers, hardware hackers, hobbyists, and designers who want more choices and more processing power for their Arduino-based projects.

Embedded Wireless Made Simple

Last week at the 2013 Sensors Expo in Chicago, Anaren had interesting wireless embedded control systems on display. The message was straightforward: add an Anaren Integrated Radio (AIR) module to an embedded system and you’re ready to go wireless.

Bob Frankel demos embedded mobile control

Bob Frankel of Emmoco provided a embedded mobile control demonstration. By adding an AIR module to a light control system, he was able to use a tablet as a user interface.

The Anaren 2530 module in a light control system (Source: Anaren)

In a separate demonstration, Anaren electrical engineer Mihir Dani showed me how to achieve effective light control with an Anaren 2530 module and TI technology. The module is embedded within the light and compact remote enables him to manipulate variables such as light color and saturation.

Visit Anaren’s website for more information.

The Future of 8-Bit Chips (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Ever since the time when a Sony Walkman retailed for around $200, engineers of all backgrounds and skill levels have been prognosticating the imminent death of 8-bit chips. No matter your age, you’ve likely heard the “8-bit is dead” argument more than once. And you’ll likely hear it a few more times over the next several years.

Long-time Circuit Cellar contributor Tom Cantrell has been following the 8-bit saga for the last 25 years. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers his thoughts on 8-bit chips and their future. Here’s a sneak peek. Cantrell writes:

“8-bit is dead.”  Or so I was told by a colleague. In 1979. Ever since then, reports of the demise of 8-bit chips have been greatly, and repeatedly, exaggerated. And ever since then, I’ve been pointing out the folly of premature eulogizing.

I’ll concede the prediction is truer today than in 1979—mainly, because it wasn’t true at all then. Now, some 30-plus years later, let’s reconsider the prospects for our “wee” friends…

Let’s start the analysis by putting on our Biz101 hats. If you Google “Product Life Cycle” and click on “Images,” you’ll see a variety of somewhat similar graphs showing how products pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline. Though all the graphs tell a rise-and-fall story, it’s interesting to note the variations. Some show a symmetrical life cycle that looks rather like a normal distribution. But the majority of the graphs show a “long-tail” variation in which the maturity phase lasts somewhat longer and the decline is relatively gradual.

Another noteworthy difference is how some graphs define life and death in terms of “sales” and others “profits.” It stands to reason that no business will continue to sell at a loss indefinitely, but the market knows how to fix that. Even if some suppliers wave the white flag, those that remain can raise prices and maintain profitability as long as there is still demand.

One of the more interesting life cycle variations shows that innovation, like a fountain of youth, can stave off death indefinitely. An example that comes to mind is the recent introduction of ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) MCUs. FRAM has real potential to reduce power consumption and also streamlines the supply chain because a single block of FRAM can be arbitrarily partitioned to emulate any mix of read-mostly or random access memory (see Photo 1). They may be “mature” products, but today the Texas Instruments MSP430 and Ramtron 8051 are leading the way with FRAM.

Photo 1: Ongoing innovation, such as the FRAM-based “Wolverine” MCU from Texas Instruments, continues to expand the market for mini-me MCUs. (Source: Cantrell CC25)

And “innovation” isn’t limited to just the chips themselves. For instance, consider the growing popularity of the Arduino SBC. There’s certainly nothing new about the middle-of-the-road, 8-bit Atmel AVR chip it uses. Rather, the innovations are with the “tools” (simplified IDE), “open-source community,” and “sales channel” (e.g., RadioShack). You can teach an old chip new tricks!

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for the rest of Cantrell’s essay. Be sure to let us know what you think about the future of the 8-bit chip.