Paul: A Robot and its Ball

[Jochen Alt]’s Paul is one of the coolest robots of its type, and maybe one of the coolest robots period. Personality? Check. Omniwheels? Check. Gratuitous feats of derring-do? Check. Paul is a ball balancing robot.

Under the hood, Paul isn’t all that strange. He’s got two microcontrollers, one for taking care of the balancing and kinematics, and another that handles the LEDs, speech processor, loudspeaker, remote-control, and other frilly bits. But the mathematics! Paul is a cylinder standing up on top of a bowling ball, so the only way it can roll forwards is to lean forwards. But of course, it can’t lean too much, because it has also got to balance. It’s absolutely the least reasonable means of locomotion. We love it.

[Jochen] was nice enough to put everything up on GitHub, so you can see how it was done, even though it looks like magic. And we dare you to watch the video, embedded below, and not feel at least a pang of sympathy pain when (spoiler alert!) he falls flat on his face. Does he recover? We’d love to know!

Paul is just one of the stellar robots in the 2017 Hackaday Sci-Fi contest, so head on over there if you still don’t have your fill.

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How To Telepathically Tell A Robot It Screwed Up

Training machines to effectively complete tasks is an ongoing area of research. This can be done in a variety of ways, from complex programming interfaces, to systems that understand commands in natural langauge. A team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) wanted to see if it was possible for humans to communicate more directly when training a robot. Their system allows a user to correct a robot’s actions using only their brain.

The concept is simple – using an EEG cap to detect brainwaves, the system measures a special type of brain signals called “error-related potentials”. Simply noticing the robot making a mistake allows the robot to correct itself, and for a nice extra touch – blush in embarassment.

This interface allows for a very intuitive way of working with a robot – upon noticing a mistake, the robot is able to automatically stop or correct its behaviour. Currently the system is only capable of being used for very simple tasks – the video shows the robot sorting objects of two types into corresponding bins. The robot knows that if the human has detected an error, it must simply place the object in the other bin. Further research seeks to expand the possibilities of using this automatic brainwave feedback to train robots for more complex tasks. You can read the research paper here.

MIT’s CSAIL work on lots of exciting projects – their video microphone technology is truly astounding.

[Thanks to Adam Connor-Simmons for the tip!]

Hull Pixel Bot, A Mobile Pixel

There are many designs for little two-wheeled robots available to download for constructors with an interest in simple robotics. You might even think there are so many that there could not possibly be room for another, but that has not deterred [Rob Miles]. He’s created HullPixelBot, a platform for a mobile pixel as well as for simple robotic experimentation.

So what makes HullPixelBot more than just Yet Another Arduino Powered Robot? For a start, it’s extremely well designed, and has a budget of less than £10 ($12.50). But the real reason to take notice lies in the comprehensive software, which packs in a language interpreter and MQTT endpoint for talking to an Azure IoT hub. This is much more than a simple Arduino bot on which you must craft your own sketches, instead, it is a platform for which the Arduino bot is merely the carrier.

The project has had quite a while to mature since its initial release, and now has the option of a single pixel or a ring of pixels. The eventual aim is to use swarms of networked HullPixelBots to create large autonomous moving pixel displays, containing more than a hundred individual pixels.

There is an early video of some PixelBots in action which we’ve placed below the break, but it serves more as eye candy than anything else. If you have a spare ten quid, download and print yourself a chassis, install Arduino and motors, and have a go yourself!

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The Enchanting Power Of SDDSbot

Who doesn’t love a good robot? If you don’t — how dare you! — then this charming little scamp might just bring the hint of a smile to your face.

SDDSbot — built out of an old Sony Dynamic Digital Sound system’s reel cover — can’t do much other than turn left, right, or walk forwards on four D/C motor-controlled legs, but it does so using the power of a Pixy camera and an Arduino. The Pixy reads colour combinations that denote stop and go commands from sheets of paper, attempting to keep it in the center of its field of view as it toddles along. Once the robot gets close enough to the ‘go’ colour code, the paper’s  orientation directs the robot to steer itself left or right — the goal being the capacity to navigate a maze. While not quite there yet, it’s certainly a handful as it is.

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Where Are the Autonomous Lawnmowers?

It’s impossible to know when society began to manicure its front lawns. Truth be told — cutting the grass was, and still is a necessity. But keeping the weeds at bay, trimming, edging and so forth is not. Having a nice lawn has become a status symbol of modern suburbia all across the globe. When the aliens arrive, one of the first things they will surely notice is how nice our front lawns are. This feature of our civilization could have only been made possible with the advent of specialized grass-cutting machines.

reel mower
Reel Mower [Public Domain]
It could be argued that the very first lawnmowers were live stock. The problem was they were quite high maintenance devices and tended to provide a very uneven cut, which did not bode well for families striving for the nicest front lawn on the dirt road. Coupled with the foul odor of their byproducts, the animals became quite unpopular and were gradually moved out of site into the back yards. Other solutions were sought to maintain the prestigious front yard.

The first mechanical lawnmower was invented in 1830 by a man named Edwin Budding, no doubt in an effort to one-up his neighbor, who still employed a Scythe. Budding’s mower looked much like today’s classic reel mowers, where a rotating cylinder houses the blades and rotates as the mower is pushed forward. Budding was granted a patent for his device by England, much to the dismay of his fellow neighbors — most of whom were forced to buy Budding’s mower due to the fact that everyone else in the neighborhood bought one, even though they weren’t actually needed.

By the early 1930’s, the cold war started by Budding and his neighbor had spread to almost every front yard on earth, with no end in sight. Fast forward to the modern era and the lawn and garden market did 10 billion in sales in 2014 alone. Technological advances have given rise to highly advanced grass-munching machines. For smaller yards, most use push mowers powered by a single cylinder IC engine. Many come with cloth bags to collect the clippings, even though everyone secretly hates using them because they gradually fill and make the mower heavier and therefore more difficult to push. But our neighbors use them, so we have to too.  Larger yards require expensive riding mowers, many of which boast hydrostatic transmissions, which owners eagerly brag about at neighborhood get-togethers, even though they haven’t the slightest clue of what it actually is.

Us hackers are no different. We have front lawns just like everyone else. But unlike everyone else (including our neighbors) we have soldering irons. And we know how to use them. I propose we take a shot-across-the-bow and disrupt the neighborhood lawn war the same way Budding did 85 years ago. So break out your favorite microcontroller and let’s get to work!

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I am Science Fiction Incarnate; I am Handle

This is the first official look at Boston Dynamics’ new robot design, called Handle, and it’s a doozy. They are a trusted source of cutting-edge real-world robotics, which is good. If this came from an unknown source we’d be scrambling to debunk it as fake. This robot shows incredible utility, the likes of which has been relegated to the computer graphics of the movie and video game industries.

Impressive ability to keep 'hands' stationary in 3D space
Impressive ability to keep ‘hands’ stationary in 3D space

At the beginning of the month, we saw a demonstration of the robot but it was simply cellphone footage of a conference hall video. This is a crystal clear 60fps video from Boston Dynamics themselves with a few juicy details to go along with it. Chief among them (for us anyway) is that this prototype has a battery range of about 15 miles between charges. The efficiency is due in large part to the wheeled nature of the beast. It balances on two wheels, but the design attaches those wheels to two fully articulated legs rather than directly to the frame of the body.

The result is a quadruped that is distinctly not human in appearance but can perform well in similar environments and with similar tasks. Handle is capable of offsetting its body weight, allowing the front limbs to pick up heavy objects while maintaining balance. The combination of both electric and hydraulic actuators let it perform feats like jumping over four-foot high objects. The independence of each wheel is shown off with ramps to simulate uneven terrain.

Bravo BD. We can’t wait to see Handle wheeling down the street placing smile-adorned boxes on each stoop as it revolutionizes home delivery. Oh, and kudos on the 80’s-style freeze frame at the end of the video below.

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Taking A Robot For A Drive

Instructables user [Roboro] had a Mad Catz Xbox steering wheel controller he hasn’t had much use for of late, so he decided to hack and use it as a controller for a robot instead.

Conceivably, you could use any RC car, but [Roboro] is reusing one he used for a robot sumo competition a few years back. Cracking open the controller revealed a warren of wires that were — surprise, surprise — grouped and labelled, making for a far less painful hacking process. Of course, [Roboro] is only using the Xbox button for power, the player-two LED to show the connection status, the wheel, and the pedals, but knowing which wires are which might come in handy later.

An Arduino Uno in the wheel and a Nano in the robot are connected via CC41-A Bluetooth modules which — despite having less functionality than the HM10 module they’re cloned from — perform admirably. A bit of code and integration of a SN754410 H-bridge motor driver — the Arduino doesn’t supply enough current to [Roboro]’s robot’s motors — and the little robot’s ready for its test drive.

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