Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Balancing Humanoid Robots

A few years after we all tire of our remote control BB-8 droids we’ll all have personal human robots designed specifically for human interaction. We’re not there yet, but [Poh Hou Shun] out of Singapore is working on a robot like this for the Hackaday Prize. It’s called OSCAR, the Omni Service Cooperative Assistance Robot.

As with any robotics platform, the use case defines the drive system; you’ll want knobby tires or treads if you’re building a sumo bot, and a strange articulating suspension if you’re driving over alien terrain. OSCAR is built for humans, and this means a humanoid chassis is required. Legs, however, aren’t. Instead of a complex system of motors and joints, OSCAR is balancing on a ball. No, it won’t go up stairs, but neither will many other robots either.

So far, [Poh Hou Shun] has built the basics of a drive system, and it’s surprisingly similar to the BB-8 droids we’re still not tired of yet. On the bottom is a large ball held in place with a spring-loaded retainer. On top of this are three stepper motors, each holding an omni wheel. It will work, there’s no doubt about that, and with the right humanoid chassis, some sensors, and a lot of software, this could be a very cool social robot.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Head Gesture Tracking Helps Limited Mobility Students

There is a lot of helpful technology for people with mobility issues. Even something that can help people do something most of us wouldn’t think twice about, like turn on a lamp or control a computer, can make a world of difference to someone who can’t move around as easily. Luckily, [Matt] has been working on using webcams and depth cameras to allow someone to do just that.

[Matt] found that using webcams instead of depth cameras (like the Kinect) tends to be less obtrusive but are limited in their ability to distinguish individual users and, of course, don’t have the same 3D capability. With either technology, though, the software implementation is similar. The camera can detect head motion and control software accordingly by emulating keystrokes. The depth cameras are a little more user-friendly, though, and allow users to move in whichever way feels comfortable for them.

This isn’t the first time something like a Kinect has been used to track motion, but for [Matt] and his work at Beaumont College it has been an important area of ongoing research. It’s especially helpful since the campus has many things on network switches (like lamps) so this software can be used to help people interact much more easily with the physical world. This project could be very useful to anyone curious about tracking motion, even if they’re not using it for mobility reasonsContinue reading “Head Gesture Tracking Helps Limited Mobility Students”

Debug An IKEA Lamp Hack, Win A Lamp Controller

[Limpkin], aka Hackaday alum [Mathieu Stephan], is at it again, converting an IKEA lamp into a visual wake-up light. He wants to build an alarm that can be remotely triggered, He’s basing this project around a combination of an ESP8266 that handles the communication and timing, and a pile of 10-watt RGB LEDs. However, he is having a problem: every time he initializes the PWM (pulse width modulation) signalling that will control the level of the LEDs, his ESP8266 dev board reboots. So, he’s offering an interesting bounty for the person who finds the issue: figure it out and he will send you the lamp. Well, the PCB and components, anyway: you’ll have to add your own IKEA lamp. It’s an interesting approach to debugging a hardware problem, so feel free to take a look. The full hardware and software details are on his GitHub repository.

Hackaday’s DC Meetup and Workshops

Washington DC has a vibrant hardware hacking community and it was out in force on Saturday night. We had over one hundred people through the door at Nova Labs in Reston, Virginia (DC metro area). This sleek and spacious hackerspace opened their doors for a Hackaday Meetup as part of a weekend packed full of activities.

The building that Nova Labs moved into not too long ago is a really well-suited area for a Hackerspace. The front half of the building includes a huge open space which has plenty of room for people to set up the hardware they wanted to show off. The back has a full woodshop, machine shop, and more, with classrooms and conference rooms in between.

Above are a set of hats with addressible LED strings wrapped around them which [ArsenioDev] brought along with him. Several members of the Wyolum team are involved with Nova Labs and they were showing off some LED matrix-based projects like the marquee cube and a 3-player reaction time game. And clacking away all night long is a vintage teletype machine that [Bob Coggeshall] fixed and connected to a Raspberry Pi.

Continue reading “Hackaday’s DC Meetup and Workshops”

The Open, Hackable Electronic Conference Badge

Electronic conference badges have been around for at least a decade now, and they all have the same faults. They’re really only meant to be used for a few days, conference organizers and attendees expect the badge to be cheap, and because of the nature of a conference badge, the code just works, and documentation is sparse.  Surely there’s a better way.

Enter the Hackable Electronic Badge. Ever since Parallax started building electronic conference badges for DEF CON, they’ve gotten a lot of requests to build badges for other conventions. Producing tens of thousands of badges makes Parallax the go-to people for your conference badge needs, but the requests for badges are always constrained by schedules that are too short, price expectations that are too low, and volumes that are unknown.

There’s a market out there for electronic conference badges, and this is Parallax’s solution to a recurring problem. They’re building a badge for all conferences, and a platform that can be (relatively) easily modified while still retaining all its core functionality.

Continue reading “The Open, Hackable Electronic Conference Badge”

Why 100 Watt eBay LEDs Are Not Your Friends

LEDs are amazing things. As time marches on, they are being used in more and more lighting applications – everything from household bulbs to automotive headlights. But the push for smaller, cheaper, and brighter LEDs seems to have hit a snag for some of the less reputable manufactures.

Case in point, [bigclivedotcom] has been testing of some 100 Watt LEDs from eBay. When these LEDs work correctly, they put out a face-melting beam of light that you wouldn’t dare looking into (picture the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark). They also have some unusual specs for an LED, like running on 30 Volts – and that’s a lot compared to the forward voltage of most LEDs at around 2.5 volts@20 mA.

So what gives? Well many of these high-wattage LEDs use a string of several LEDs in series. And as [bigclivedotcom] points out, this can be a real problem when a few of the LEDs begin to fail and act more like a low value resistor than a typical LED. In the videos after the break you can see [bigclivedotcom] test the LEDs to get a better look and what’s happening and why.

Continue reading “Why 100 Watt eBay LEDs Are Not Your Friends”

Let Skynet Become Self-Aware!

Not so long ago, it was hard to fly. Forget actual manned aircraft and pilots licenses; even flying model aircraft required hours of practice, often under the tutelage of a master at a flying field. But along with that training came an education in the rules of safe flight, including flying at a designated airfield and watching out for obstacles.

We accidentally messed that up. We in the drone industry made aircraft super easy to fly — perhaps too easy to fly. Thanks to smart autopilots and GPS, you can open a box, download an app and press “take off”. The copter will dutifully rise into the air and wait there for further instructions — no skill required. And it will do this even if you happen to be in an NFL football stadium in the middle of a big game. Or near an airport. Or in the midst of a forest fire.

The problem is that along with taking training out of the process of flying a drone, we inadvertently also took out the education process of learning about safe and responsible flight. Sure, we drone manufacturers include all sorts of warning and advisories in our instructions manual (which people don’t read) and our apps (which they swipe past), and companies such as DJI and my own 3DR include basic “geofencing” restrictions to try to keep operators below 400 feet and within “visual line of sight”. But it’s not enough.

Every day there are more reports of drone operators getting past these restrictions and flying near jetliners, crashing into stadiums, and interfering with first responders. So far it hasn’t ended in tragedy, but the way things are going it eventually will. And in the meantime, it’s making drones increasingly controversial and even feared. I call this epidemic of (mostly inadvertent) bad behavior “mass jackassery”. As drones go mass market, the odds of people doing dumb things with them reach the singularity of certainty.

We’ve got to do something about this before governments do it for us, with restrictions that catch the many good uses of drones in the crossfire. The reality is that most drone operators who get in trouble aren’t malicious and may not even know that what they’re doing is irresponsible or even illegal. Who can blame them? It’s devilishly hard to understand the patchwork quilt of federal, state and local regulations and guidelines, which change by the day and even the hour based on “airspace deconfliction” rules and FAA alerts written for licensed pilots and air traffic control. Many drone owners don’t even know that such rules exist.

Drones Themselves Should Know Rules of Each Area

Fortunately, they don’t have to. Our drones can be even smarter — smart enough to know where they should and shouldn’t fly. Because modern drones are connected to phones, they’re also connected to the cloud. Every time you open their app, that app can check online to find appropriate rules for flight where you are, right then and there.

Here’s how it works. The app sends four data fields to a cloud service: Who (operator identifier), What (aircraft identifier), Where (GPS and altitude position) and When (either right now or a scheduled time in the case of autonomous missions). The cloud service then returns a “red light” (flight not allowed), a “green light” (flight allowed, with basic restrictions such as a 400 feet altitude ceiling), or “yellow light” (additional restrictions or warnings, which can be explained to the operator in context and at the point of use).


Right now industry groups such as the Dronecode Foundation, the Small UAV Coalition (I help lead both of them, but this essay just reflects my own personal views) and individual manufacturers such as 3DR and DJI are working on these “safe flight” standards and APIs. Meanwhile, a number of companies such as Airmap and Skyward are building the cloud services to provide the up-to-date third-party data layer that any manufacturer can use. It will start with static no-fly zone data such as proximity to airports, US national parks and other banned airspace such as Washington DC. But it will quickly add dynamic data, too, such as forest fires, public events, and proximity to other aircraft.

(For more on this, you can read a white paper from one of the Dronecode working groups here and higher level description here.)

There’s Always a Catch

Of course, this system isn’t perfect. It’s only as good as the data it uses, which is still pretty patchy worldwide, and the ways that the manufacturers implement those restrictions. Some drone makers may choose to treat any area five miles from an airport as a hard ban and prohibit all flight in that zone, even at the cost of furious customers who had no idea they were five miles from an airport when they bought that toy at Wal-mart (nor do they think it should matter, since it’s just a “toy”). Other manufacturers may choose to make a more graduated restriction for the sake of user friendliness, adding a level of nuance that is not in the FAA regulation. They might ban, say, flight one mile from an airport, but only limit flight beyond that to something like 150ft of altitude (essentially backyard-level flying).

That’s a reasonable first step. But the ultimate safe flight system would go a lot further. It would essentially extend the international air traffic control system to millions of aircraft (there are already a million consumer drones in the air) flown by everything from children to Amazon. The only way to do that is to let the drones regulate themselves (yes, let Skynet become self-aware).

Peer-to-peer Air Traffic Control

There’s a precedent for such peer-to-peer air traffic control: WiFI. Back in the 1980s, the FCC released spectrum in the 2.4 Ghz band for unlicensed use. A decade later, the first 802.11 standards for Wifi were released, which was based on some principles that have application to drones, too.

  1. The airspace used is not otherwise occupied by commercial operators
  2. The potential for harm is low (in the case of WiFi, low transmission power. In the case of drones, low kinetic energy due to the weight restrictions of the “micro” category)
  3. The technology has the capability to self-”deconflict” the airspace by observing what else is using it and picking a channel/path that avoids collisions.

That “open spectrum” sandbox that the FCC created also created a massive new industry around WiFi. It put wireless in the hands of everyone and routed around the previous monopoly owners of the spectrum, cellphone carriers and media companies. The rest was history.

Quadcopter ThumbWe can do the same thing with drones. Let’s create an innovation “sandbox” with de minimus regulatory barriers for small UAVs flying within very constrained environments. The parameters of the sandbox could be almost anything, as long as they’re clear, but it should be kinetic energy and range based (a limit of 2kg and 20m/s at 100m altitude and 1,000m range within visual line of sight would be a good starting point).

As in the case of open spectrum, in relatively low risk applications, such as micro-drones, technology can be allowed to “self-deconflict the airspace” without the need for monopoly exclusions such as exclusive licences or regulatory permits. How? By letting the drones report their position using the same cellphone networks they used to get permission to fly in the first place. The FAA already has a standard for this, called ADS-B, which is based on transponders in each aircraft reporting their position. But those transponders are expensive and unnecessary for small drones, which already know their position and are connected to the cloud. Instead, they can use “virtual ADS-B” to report their position via their cell network connections, and that data can be injected into the same cloud data services they used to check if their flight was safe in the first place.

Once this works, we’ll have a revolution. What WiFi did the telecoms industry, autonomous, cloud-connected drones can do to the aerospace industry. We can occupy the skies, and do it safely. Technology can solve the problems it creates.

About the Author

judge-thumb-AndersonChris Anderson (@Chr1sa) is the CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones. From 2001 through 2012 he was the Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine. Before Wired he was with The Economist for seven years in London, Hong Kong and New York.

The author of the New York Times bestselling books The Long Tail and Free as well as the Makers: The New Industrial Revolution.

His background is in science, starting with studying physics and doing research at Los Alamos and culminating in six years at the two leading scientific journals, Nature and Science.

In his self-described misspent youth [Chris] was a bit player in the DC punk scene and amusingly, a band called REM. You can read more about that here.

Awards include: Editor of the Year by Ad Age (2005). Named to the “Time 100,” the newsmagazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world (2007). Loeb Award for Business Book of the Year (2007). Wired named Magazine of the Decade by AdWeek for his tenure (2009). Time Magazine’s Tech 40 — The Most Influential Minds In Technology (2013). Foreign Policy Magazine’s Top 100 Global Thinkers (2013).