My DIY BB-8: Problems, Solutions, Lessons Learned

Imagine trying to make a ball-shaped robot that rolls in any direction but with a head that stays on. When I saw the BB-8 droid doing just that in the first Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer, it was an interesting engineering challenge that I couldn’t resist. All the details for how I made it would fill a book, so here are the highlights: the problems I ran into, how I solved them and what I learned.

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Lighthouse Locates Drone; Achieves Autonomous Battery Swap

The HTC Vive’s Lighthouse localization system is one of the cleverest things we’ve seen in a while. It uses a synchronization flash followed by a swept beam to tell any device that can see the lights exactly where it is in space. Of course, the device has to understand the signals to figure it out.

[Alex Shtuchkin] built a very well documented device that can use these signals to localize itself in your room. For now, the Lighthouse stations are still fairly expensive, but the per-device hardware requirements are quite reasonable. [Alex] has the costs down around ten dollars plus the cost of a microcontroller if your project doesn’t already include one. Indeed, his proof-of-concept is basically a breadboard, three photodiodes, op-amps, and some code.

His demo is awesome! Check it out in the video below. He uses it to teach a quadcopter to land itself back on a charging platform, and it’s able to get there with what looks like a few centimeters of play in any direction — more than good enough to land in the 3D-printed plastic landing thingy. That fixture has a rotating drum that swaps out the battery automatically, readying the drone for another flight.

If this is just the tip of the iceberg of upcoming Lighthouse hacks, we can’t wait!

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How Many Drones Does It Take To Screw In A Lightbulb?

Imagine. There you are, comfortable in your lounge pants. Lounging in your lounge. Suddenly in the distance you hear a buzzing. Quiet at first, then louder. A light bulb goes on in your head.

You forgotten that you’d scheduled an Amazon drone repair service in partnership with The Home Depot and Dewalt. They break through the window, spraying you with shards. They paint the spots on the walls. Snap photos of the brands in your closet. Change the light bulbs. Place a bandaid on your glass wounds. Pick up the shards and leave. Repairing it on their way out.

Horrible.

Of course the first step before this dark future comes to be is to see if it can be done; which is what [Marek Baczynski] and a friend accomplished many broken light bulbs later. Using an off the shelf drone with three springy prongs glued to the top they try time and time again to both unscrew and screw in a light bulb. They try at first with a lighter drone, but eventually switch to a more robust model.

After a while they finally manage it, so it’s possible. Next step, automate. Video after the break.

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Mintomat: An Overcomplicated Gumball Machine

How do you get teenagers interested in science, technology, and engineering? [Erich]’s team at the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences makes them operate three robots to get a gumball. The entire demonstration was whipped together in a few days, and has been field-repaired at least once; a green-wire fix was a little heavy on the solder and would short out to a neighboring trace when mechanical force was applied.

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Floating Walking Robot

It’s no secret that we love bizarre robot locomotion, so we are naturally suckers for BALLU (YouTube link, also embedded below) the Bouyancy-Assisted Lightweight Legged Unit. The project started with a simple observation — walking robots are constrained by having to hold themselves up — and removing that constraint make success much easier. Instead of walking, BALLU almost floats and uses what little net weight it does have to push against the ground.

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Raspberry Pi Robot That Reads Your Emotions

It’s getting easier and easier to add machine intelligence to your hacks, even to the point where you sometimes don’t have to install any special software. In this case [Dexter Industries] has added the ability to read human emotions to their EmpathyBot robot by making use of Google Cloud Vision.

Press a button on the robot and it moves forward until it’s a certain distance from an object. It then takes a picture and sends it off to Google Cloud Vision along with a request to do face detection. The response that Google returns is in JSON format and, if it finds a face, includes the likelihood of the face being happy, sad, sorrowful or surprised. The robot parses that response and gives an appropriate canned speech using the text-to-speech software, eSpeak e.g. “You seem happy! Tell me why you are so happy!”.

[Dexter] has made the source code available on github. It’s written in python and is easy to read by anyone with even just a little programming experience. The video after the break gives a number of demonstrations, including some with non-human subjects.

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