Super Simple Hydraulics Using Syringes

When making a toy excavator arm, or any robotic arm, the typical approach is to put motors at the joints, or if there isn’t room, to put the motors somewhere else and transfer the force using fishing line and pulleys. [Navin Khambhala] chose instead to do it more like the real excavators, with hydraulics using syringes. And we have to admit, the result it pretty elegant in its simplicity.

The syringes do the job of single-acting hydraulic actuators, one at the motor and the other where the force is needed. In between them, what appears to be clear vinyl tubes carry the fluid between syringes. 12 volt DC motors with bolts on them move nuts attached to the syringe pistons to push and pull the pistons. It is so simple that no further explanation is needed, though like most apparently simple things, we’re sure a lot of effort went into making it that way. The video below shows the finished product, as well as walks through the making of it.

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The 4-20 mA Current Loop

The I/O capabilities built into most microcontrollers make it easy to measure the analog world. Say you want to build a data logger for temperature. All you need to do is get some kind of sensor that has a linear voltage output that represents the temperature range you need to monitor — zero to five volts representing 0° to 100°C, perhaps. Hook the sensor up to and analog input, whip up a little code, and you’re done. Easy stuff.

Now put a twist on it: you need to mount the sensor far from the microcontroller. The longer your wires, the bigger the voltage drop will be, until eventually your five-volt swing representing a 100° range is more like a one-volt swing. Plus your long sensor leads will act like a nice antenna to pick up all kinds of noise that’ll make digging a usable voltage signal off the line all the harder.

Luckily, industrial process engineers figured out how to deal with these problems a long time ago by using current loops for sensing and control. The most common standard is the 4-mA-to-20-mA current loop, and here we’ll take a look at how it came to be, how it works, and how you can leverage this basic process control technique for your microcontroller projects.

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Genetically Engineered Muscle Cells Power Tiny Bio-Robots

One of the essential problems of bio-robotics is actuators. The rotors, bearings, and electrical elements of the stepper motors and other electromechanical drives we generally turn to for robotics projects are not really happy in living systems. But building actuators the way nature does it — from muscle tissue — opens up a host of applications. That’s where this complete how-to guide on building and controlling muscle-powered machines comes in.

Coming out of the [Rashid Bashir] lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign, the underlying principles are simple, which of course is the key to their power. The technique involves growing rings of muscle tissue in culture using 3D-printed hydrogel as forms. The grown muscle rings are fitted on another 3D-printed structure, this one a skeleton with stiff legs on a flexible backbone. Stretched over the legs like rubber bands, the muscle rings can be made to contract and move the little bots around.

Previous incarnations of this technique relied on cultured rat heart muscle cells, which contract rhythmically of their own accord. That yielded motion but lacked control, so for this go-around, [Bashir] et al used skeletal muscle cells genetically engineered to contract when exposed to light. Illuminating different parts of the muscle ring lets the researchers move the bio-bots anywhere they want. They can also use electric stimulation to control the bio-bots.

The method isn’t quite at the point where home lab biohackers will start churning out armies of bio-bots. But the paper is remarkably detailed in methods and materials, from the CAD files for 3D-printing the forms and bio-bot skeletons to a complete troubleshooting guide. It’s all there, and it could be a game changer for developing the robotic surgeons of the future.

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FabLab Hackathon Gives the Gift of Art Back to a Stranger in Need

If building the James Webb Space Telescope and F/A-18 fighter jets aren’t enough reasons to work for Northrop Grumman, there’s always the FabLab – the company sponsored hackerspace. It’s a place where anything goes and everything is possible, including giving the gift of art back to a stranger in need.

The video below tells the story of [Raul Pizarro], a young man and gifted artist. Diagnosed as a child with muscular dystrophy, [Raul] was getting to the point where the progressive weakening of his muscles was making it difficult to hold up his arm. [Raul]’s art was slipping away – until [Tony Long] caught wind of the story, that is. [Tony] runs the FabLab, and once he put out the word to his colleagues he got a hackathon together to work on solutions for [Raul].

What they came up with was an overhead support system with a tool balancer and custom articulated sling to reduce the effect of gravity and support [Raul]’s arm. To compensate for his reduced range of motion, they also built an easel with actuators that can raise and lower his canvases and position them where he needs them. It looks like the FabLab team paid special attention to making everything as smooth and stable as possible, and as a result [Raul] is back to doing what he does best. Oh, and if [Tony] and the FabLab sound familiar, it might be because he played host when our own [Mike Szczys] visited Northrop last year.

We really like to see hacks that help mankind as a whole, but there’s something special about a bunch of strangers coming together to help just one man too. Hats off to [Tony] and his FabLab team for pulling off a great hack and giving [Raul] back his art.

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Esoteric Actuators

Motors are everywhere; DC motors, AC motors, steppers, and a host of others. In this article, I’m going to look beyond these common devices and search out more esoteric and unusual electronic actuators that might just find a place in one of your projects. In any case, their mechanisms are interesting in their own right! Join me after the break for a survey of piezo, magnetostrictive, magnetorheological, voice coils, galvonometers, and other devices. I’d love to hear about your favorite actuators and motors too, so please comment below!

Piezo actuators and motors

The flexing of a piezo buzzer from arcbotics

Piezoelectric materials sometimes seem magic. Apply a voltage to a piezoelectric material and it will move, as simple as that. The catch of course is that it doesn’t move very much. The piezoelectric device you’re probably most familiar with is the humble buzzer. You’d usually drive these with less than 10 volts. While a buzzer will produce a clearly audible sound you can’t really see it flexing (as it does shown above).

To gauge the motion of a buzzer I recently attempted to drive one with a 150 volt piezo driver, this resulted in a total deflection of around 0.1mm. Not very much by normal standards!

The PiezoMotor LEGS actuator “walks” along a rod, pushing it as it goes.

For some applications however resolution is of primary interest rather than range of travel. It is here that piezo actuators really shine. The poster-boy application of piezo actuators is perhaps the scanning probe microscope. These often require sub-nanometer accuracy (less than 1000th of 1000th of 1 millimeter) in order to visualize individual atoms. Piezo stacks are ideal here (though hackers have also used cheap buzzers!).

Sometimes though you need high precision over a larger range of travel. There are a number of piezo configurations that allow this. Notably Inchworm, “LEGS”, and slip-stick actuators.

The PiezoMotor LEGS actuator is shown to the above. As noted, Piezos only produce small (generally sub-millimeter) motion. Rather than using this motion directly, LEGS uses this motion to “walk” along a rod, pushing it back and forth. The rod is therefore moved, in tiny nanometer steps. However, piezos can move quickly (flexing thousands of times a second). And the LEGS (and similar Inchworm actuator) allows relatively quick, high force, and high resolution motion.


The tablecloth trick (yes this one’s fake, the kid is ok don’t worry. :))

Another type of long travel piezo actuator uses the “stick-slip phenomenon”. This is much like the tablecloth magic trick shown above. If you pull the cloth slowly there will be significant friction between the cloth and this crockery and they will be dragged along with the cloth. Pull it quickly and there will be less friction and the crockery will remain in place.

This difference between static and dynamic friction is exploited in stick-slip actuators. The basic mechanism is shown in the figure below.

Motion caused by a stick-slip motor

When extending slowing a jaw rotates a screw, but if the piezo stack is compressed quickly the screw will not return. The screw can therefore be made to rotate. By inverting the process (extending quickly, then compressing slowly) the process is reversed and the screw is turned in the opposite direction. The neat thing about this configuration is that it retains much of the piezo’s original precision. Picomotors have resolutions of around 30 nanometer over a huge range of travel, typically 25mm, they’re typically used for optical focusing and alignment and can be picked up on eBay for 100 dollars or so. Oh and they can also be used to make music. Favorites include Stairway to Heaven, and not 1 but 2 versions of Still Alive (from Portal). Obligatory Imperial March demonstration is embedded here:

There are numerous other piezo configurations, but typically they are used to provide high force, high precision motion. I document a few more over on my blog.

Magnetostrictive actuators

Magnetostriction is the tendency of a material to change shape under a magnetic field. We’ve been talking about magnetostriction quite a lot lately. However much like piezos it can also be used for high precision motion. Unlike piezos they require relatively low voltages for operation and have found niche applications.

Magnetorheological motion

Magnetorheological (MR) fluids are pretty awesome! Much like ferrofluids, MR fluids respond to changes in magnetic field strength. However, unlike ferrofluids it’s their viscosity that changes.

MRfluidThis novel characteristic has found applications in a number of areas. In particularly the finishing of precise mirrors and lens used in semiconductor and astronomical applications. This method uses an electromagnet to change the viscosity of the slurry used to polish mirrors, removing imperfections. The Hubble telescope’s highly accurate mirrors were apparently finished using this technique (though hopefully not that mirror). You can purchase MR fluid in small quantities for a few hundred dollars.

Electrostatic motors

While magnetic motors operate through the attraction and repulsion of magnetic fields, electrostatic motors exploit the attraction and repulsion of electric change to produce motion. Electrostatic forces are orders or magnitude smaller that magnetic ones. However they do have niche applications. One such application is MEMS motors, tiny (often less than 0.01mm) sized nanofabricated motors. At these scales electromagnetic coils would be too large and specific power (power per unit volume) is more important than the magnitude of the overall force.

Voice coils and Galvanometers

The voice coil is your basic electromagnet. They’re commonly used in speakers, where an electromagnet in the cone reacts against a fixed magnet to produce motion. However voice coil like configurations are used for precise motion control elsewhere (for example to focus the lens of an optical drive, or position the read head of a hard disc drive). One of the cooler applications however is the mirror galvanometer. As the name implies the device was originally used to measure small currents. A current through a coil moved a rod to which a mirror was attached. A beam of light reflect off the mirror and on to a wall effectively created a very long pointer, amplifying the signal.

These days ammeters are far more sensitive of course, but the mirror galvanometer has found more entertaining applications:

High speed laser “galvos” are used to position a laser beam producing awesome light shows. Modern systems can position a laser beam at kilohertz speeds, rendering startling images. These systems are effectively high speed vector graphic like line drawing systems, resulting in a number of interesting algorithmic challenges. Marcan’s OpenLase framework provides a host of tools for solving these challenges effectively, and is well worth checking out.

In this article I’ve tried to highlight some interesting and lesser known techniques for creating motion in electronic systems. Most of these have niche scientific, industrial or artistic applications. But I hope they also also offer inspiration as you work on your own hacks! If you have a favorite, lesser known actuator or motor please comment below!

Galactic Dimension – a supersized DIY pinball machine

If you are from the 1960’s or 1970’s we know you would have enjoyed furiously punching the buttons of a pin ball machine back in the day. Installation artist [Niklas Roy] recently revisited this old classic game and built Galactic Dimension – a supersized pinball machine for Phæno – an amazing science center in the German city of Wolfsburg. The science centre was planning a big exhibition featuring thirty beautiful, classic pinball machines loaned from the Pacific Pinball Museum in Alameda, California.

The game machine was built on a steep ramp and has a gigantic play field measuring 3m x 6m (10’x20′). It features Sci-Fi game elements in the play field which blend perfectly with the futuristic building where it is housed. The game elements are built from repurposed everyday items like hair dryers and fans, giving visitors the motivation to build some of their own such contraptions.

The players operate the machine via a control desk, and a giant calculator is used to display the game score. The steep ramp had an incline of almost 30° which meant that he had to use a light ball to be able to propel it around the play field. The main user controls are the two flippers, and building giant ones was a big challenge. Solenoids or coils would not cut the ice, and he settled for pneumatic cylinders – easy to control, powerful, not too loud, and the museum already had a compressed air supply readily available. But it still took him three iterations before he could get it right. The plunger, which initially propels the ball, was built from PVC pipes and a hair dryer. Each play field element was built as a separate module to make assembly and maintenance easier. All featured a 220V AC supply, a sensor (either an IR distance sensor or a light barrier) to detect the ball, and an Arduino. Actuators were built from hair dryers and portable fans. Each of them have their own sound effects too – either a hacked toy or a speaker controlled by the Arduino. After everything was built, taken apart, transported, and reassembled at the site, the Galactic Dimension worked without a glitch, and without releasing any magic smoke. To top it off, Andreas Harre, who’s been the German pinball champion for several years in a row, also played the machine when he visited Phæno – and was totally excited about it!

So if you are in that part of Germany anytime until September, do drop in and try to ring up a big score. For photos of his build log, check out the photo album. There’s also a fairly big block diagram (German) and the Arduino sketches (.zip file), if you’d like to take a stab at building an even bigger pinball machine. Check the video to see the machine in action. And if the name [Niklas] sounds familiar, it is because he loves building installations such as the Forbidden Fruit Machine, the Ball Sucking Machine, and another Ball Sucking Machine.

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Automated Plant Watering System Uses Car Parts

[Shane] recently built an automated plant watering system for his home. We’ve seen several similar projects before, but none of them worked quite like this one. Shane’s system is not hooked into the house plumbing and it doesn’t use any off-the-shelf electronic valves.

Instead, [Shane’s] build revolves around a device that looks like it was intended to spray weed killer. The unit works sort of like a Super Soaker. The user fills the jug with water and then pumps a handle multiple times to build up some pressure inside the jug. Then a button can be pressed and the air pressure forces water out of the nozzle. [Shane] came up with a way to automate all of these mechanical motions.

First [Shane] had to find a way to pump up the bottle. He purchased a car door electronic lock actuator from eBay. It’s a pretty simple device. It’s just a DC motor with a gear box that turns the rotational motion of the motor into linear motion. This is mounted to a wooden jig and attached to the pump. A dsPIC microcontroller rotates the motor back and forth, which in turn pumps up the bottle.

The dsPic is also hooked up to a small servo. The servo is mounted to the same wooden jig as the car door actuator. A small arm is mounted to the servo so that when it rotates, the arm presses the pressure release button. This sends the water out of the bottles nozzle. [Pat] hooked up a small length of hose to the nozzle so he can direct the water into his plants. The video below demonstrates how the unit works. Continue reading “Automated Plant Watering System Uses Car Parts”