Ball Balancing Robot Uses New TOF Sensor

By now, you’ve most likely have seen or even played with an ultrasonic distance sensor. They work by emitting a sound, and then listening for the “ping” to return. The sensor can then tell how far an object is away by calculating the time in between. With sound waves traveling at 343.2 meters per second (768 mph), it’s no small task to measure the short time it takes for the sound to be emitted, then hit something a few feet away, and return. Now, imagine trying to do that with light.

Light in comparison moves at a whopping 299,792,458 meters per second (or about 671 million miles per hour). You’re going to have to have a pretty fast finger on a stopwatch to measure the time it takes for light to bounce back from an object a few inches away.

[Paul Bristow] is doing just that with the use of a new Time of Flight (ToF) sensor called the TeraRanger One. Developed in cooperation with CERN, this sensor uses a very narrow beam of light (listed as +/- 2 degrees) to accurately measure the position of an object to a resolution of 5mm, with distances up to 14 meters away. It boasts an impressive update rate of >1000 samples a second, and is very micro-controller friendly with UART, I2C, SPI, and PWM output.

[Paul] and his fellow hackers at the Post Tenebras Lab Hackerspace in Geneva got their hands on this sensor, and in a short time had a ball balancing robot up and running. The crude program is not running a PID controller, so the results seen in the video after the break aren’t that impressive. Also, the sensor isn’t exactly cheap at about $180 USD. Despite that, it will be interesting to see what applications these sensors will be used for. If you have any ideas, leave them in the comments below.

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Cute Tiny Robot Gets a Pair of Hacked Eyes

One day while at our poor, poor Radio Shack, [davidhend] purchased a little 6-legged walking robot. It came with an infrared remote that allowed a user to control its movements from afar. After a few minutes of making the robot walk around [davidhend] got bored and decided it would be a great toy to hack.

His plan was to make the robot autonomous and able to avoid obstacles. To start off, the robot was taken apart enough to expose the circuit board. There he found a ST1155A bi-directional motor driver that was controlled by an on-board microcontroller. After checking out the ST1155A data sheet, [davidhend] thought he would be able to drive it with an Arduino. So, out came the soldering iron and all the unnecessary components were removed from the original circuit board.

An off the shelf PING))) sensor was mounted on the front of the robot and is responsible for detecting obstacles. That information is then sent back to the Arduino Nano which controls the motor driver to make the robot back up, turn and then start walking straight again until another obstacle is detected. [davidhend] made his Arduino Code (.zip file) available to anyone who wants to make a similar project. Check out the video after the break!

Oh, and if you plan to run down to the Shack to pick up a robot of your own you better do it like right now.

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Spline Thieving Makes Hobby Servos Even More Useful

For years the proprietary spline pattern of rc servos has been a dealbreaker for hobbyists who want to add custom shafts and gears to their servos. First, different servo sizes have different spline sizes, and each vendor equips their servos with different patterns. True, some special vendors sell custom gears that mate to these patterns, but, overall, the hard-to-replicate pattern has severely limited the output options for servos.

This pattern didn’t deter [JB], however. With some clever CAD skills, and two working implementations, he’s demonstrated that these spline patterns can be (1) harvested and (2) added into custom components, opening a new suite of design opportunities involving servos.

To capture the spline, [JB] imports an image into Solidworks, and traces the pattern on a properly scaled image. From there, he can embed this pattern directly into a physical model for fabrication.

To make parts that preserve this pattern, [JB] has two options. With his FormLabs printer, he can print components that already have the pattern feature, allowing him to press-fit custom links directly onto servos. Alternatively, for a sturdier component, he presents the milling method. With this technique, he drills a circle of bolt holes onto the desired output shaft and then mills out the center. From here, the shaft can also be directly pressed onto the servo spline where each spline groove fits snugly into the edge of the previously-drilled holes.

So, how well do they work? According to [JB] he’s actually managed to do some damage to himself before damaging to the 3D-printed part while trying to strip the pattern. The end-goal is to insert these shafts into transmissions for a miniature combat robot, another one of [JB’s] projects which is well-underway. Until then, we’re looking forward to seeing more servos tightly-integrated into upcoming projects.

Sonar Built from Piezo and Microphone

[Jason] has continued to plug along with his sonar build and recently showed up a monostatic active sonar using a piezo element and microphone. Regular readers will remember [Jason’s] experiments from a Fail of the Week post which focused on his water-proofing woes from a much earlier prototype.

We find this offering far more engaging. He has ditched the ultrasonic module seen in those experiments. The new rig drives the piezo element using a 27V source. After each ping is sent out, the microphone input is immediately captured to detect the return of the audible sound. [Jason] mentions that the TI Launchpad he’s using for the project is fast enough for these experiments but he may switch to a Teensy 3.1 in order to double the RAM and thereby increase the sample size he is able to record.

Of course this is intended for underwater ROVs so his next iteration will involve a DIY hydrophone. We can’t wait to see that one as the process of converting this test rig into one that works underwater evades us. If you have some tips on that topic please let us know in the comments.

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ANUBIS, A Natural User Bot Interface System

[Matt], [Andrew], [Noah], and [Tim] have a pretty interesting build for their capstone project at Ohio Northern University. They’re using a Microsoft Kinect, and a Leap Motion to create a natural user interface for controlling humanoid robots.

The robot the team is using for this project is a tracked humanoid robot they’ve affectionately come to call Johnny Five.  Johnny takes commands from a computer, Kinect, and Leap motion to move the chassis, arm, and gripper around in a way that’s somewhat natural, and surely a lot easier than controlling a humanoid robot with a keyboard.

The team has also released all their software onto Github under an open source license. You can grab that over on the Gits, or take a look at some of the pics and videos from the Columbus Mini Maker Faire.

LVBots CES Open House: Tabletop Challenge and Clothes Bot

LVBots, a club for robot building enthusiasts in Las Vegas, held an open house the week of CES. This was the only trip [Sophi] and I took away from the conference halls of The Strip and it was a blast! The group holds meetings twice a month in a space provided by Pololu — a well-known robotics and electronics manufacturer headquartered just south of McCarran International Airport.

Before the formal part of the gathering started there were several builds being shown off. [Claire] and [Brian] recently participated in an AT&T sponsored hackathon. Their creation is a robotic closet. The system involves moving racks of clothing which are tracked by a smartphone app. Interesting features discussed for the software include monitoring when each garment was last worn, last washed, and if it is appropriate for current weather conditions. Dig into the code in their repo.

In other parts of the room a pair of line-following robots did their thing, and a couple of sumo-bots competed to push each other out of the ring. A large group was gathered around the projector watching videos of robots of all types, brainstorming about the difficult parts, how they were overcome, and how these methods may be applied to their own build. I can attest that hanging with a group of people who are trying to cue up the most amazing robot demonstrations makes for amazing viewing!

As the organized part of the meeting began I was delighted to hear about a standing challenge from the LVbots group. The Tabletop challenge has multiple phases that serve to encourage builders to start modestly and then iterate to achieve new goals:

Phase 0: bring a robot to LVBots
Phase 1: travel back and forth without falling off
Phase 2: find an object and push it off
Phase 3: push object into a goal

[Nathan Bryant] was one of the two robot builders trying out the challenge on this night. He built this hexapod from balsa wood and three servo motors and was testing Phase 1. The bot includes a sensor dangling out in front of the robot to detect then the table surface is no long below. At that point it backs up a few steps, turns in place, and proceeds in the opposite direction. [Nathan] mentions that he worked out all the movements in a spreadsheet and that future firmware upgrades will dramatically increase the speed at which the bot moves. We love the audible cadence of the bot which is easily observed in the video above. At one point a leg dangles over the edge and it looks like [Nathan] pushed the bot back but I don’t remember him actually touching it so I’m calling this a trick of camera angle.

One phase further in the Tabletop Challenge is [Joe Carson]. He exhibited a wheeled robot he’s been working on that includes a gripper arm on the front. The robot looks around the table for a predefined color, in this case provided by a highlighting marker. When found the bot approaches, grips, and then proceeds to move the marker over the void where it is dropped out of existence; at least from the robot’s point of view.

Twisted String Actuators

[Travis] tells us about a neat actuator concept that’s as old as dirt. It’s capable of lifting 7kg when powered by a pager motor, and the only real component is a piece of string.

The concept behind the twisted string actuator, as it’s known to academia, is as simple as putting a motor on one end of a piece of string, tying the other end off to a load, and putting a few twists in the string. It’s an amazingly simple concept that has been known and used for thousands of years: ballistas and bow-string fire starters use the same theory.

Although the concept of a twisted string actuator is intuitively known by anyone over the age of six, there aren’t many studies and even fewer projects that use this extremely high gear ratio, low power, and very cheap form of linear motion. A study from 2012 (PDF) put some empirical data behind this simple device. The takeaway from this study is that tension on the string doesn’t matter, and more strands or larger diameter strands means the actuator shrinks with a fewer number of turns. Fewer strands and smaller diameter strands take more turns to shrink to the same length.

As for useful applications of these twisted string actuators, there are a few projects that have used these systems in anthropomorphic hands and elbows. No surprise there, really; strings don’t take up much space, and they work just like muscles and tendons do in the human body.

Thanks [ar0cketman] for the link.