HTC Vive Gives Autonomous Robots Direction

The HTC Vive is a virtual reality system designed to work with Steam VR. The system seeks to go beyond just a headset in order to make an entire room a virtual reality environment by using two base stations that track the headset and controller in space. The hardware is very exciting because of the potential to expand gaming and other VR experiences, but it’s already showing significant potential for hackers as well — in this case with robotics location and navigation.

Autonomous robots generally utilize one of two basic approaches for locating themselves: onboard sensors and mapping to see the world around it (like how you’d get your bearings while hiking), or sensors in the room which tell the robot where it is (similar to your GPS telling you where you are in the city). Each method has its strengths and weaknesses, of course. Onboard sensors are traditionally expensive if you need very accurate position data, and GPS location data is far too inaccurate to be of use on a smaller scale than city streets.

[Limor] immediately saw the potential in the HTC Vive to solve this problem, at least for indoor applications. Using the Vive Lighthouse base stations, he’s able to locate the system’s controller in 3D space to within 0.3mm. He’s then able to use this data on a Linux system and integrate it into ROS (Robot Operating System). [Limor] hasn’t yet built a robot to utilize this approach, but the significant cost savings ($800 for a complete Vive, but only the Lighthouses and controller are needed) is sure to make this a desirable option for a lot of robot builders. And, as we’ve seen, integrating the Vive hardware with DIY electronics should be entirely possible.

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Hacklet 113 – New Robots

I start each day checking out the new and updated projects over on Each day one can find all manner of projects – from satellites to machine vision to rockets. One type of project which is always present are robots- robot arms, educational ‘bots, autonomous robots, and mobile robots. This week’s had a few great robot projects show up on the “new and updated” page, so I’m using the Hacklet to take a closer look.

bot1We start with [Jack Qiao] and Autonomous home robot that does things. [Jack] is building a robot that can navigate his home. He’s learned that just creating a robot that can get itself from point A to point B in the average home is a daunting task. To make this happen, he’s using the Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) algorithm. He’s implementing SLAM with the help of Robotic Operating System (ROS).  The robot started out as a test mule tethered to a laptop. It’s evolved to a wooden base with a mini ITX motherboard. Mapping data comes in through a Kinect V2, which will soon be upgraded to a Neato XV-11 LIDAR system.


tyrobotNext up is [Tyler Spadgenske] with TyroBot. TyroBot is a walking robot with some lofty goals, including walking a mile in a straight line without falling down. [Tyler’s] inspiration comes from robots such as Bob the Biped and Zowi. So far, TyroBot consists of legs and feet printed in PLA. [Tyler] is going to use a 32 bit processor for [TyroBot’s] brain, and wants to avoid the Arduino IDE at any cost (including writing his own IDE from scratch). This project is just getting started, so head on over to the project page and watch TyroBot’s progress!


friendbotNext is [Mike Rigsby] with Little Friend. Little Friend is a companion robot. [Mike] found that robots spend more time charging batteries than interacting. This wouldn’t do for a companion robot. His solution was to do away with batteries all together. Little Friend is powered by super capacitors. An 8 minute charge will keep this little bot going for 75 minutes. An Arduino with a motor shield controls Little Friend’s DC drive motors, as well as two animated eyes. If you can’t tell, [Mike] used a tomato as his inspiration. This keeps Little Friend in the cute zone, far away from the uncanny valley.


logi-botFinally we have the walking robot king, [Radomir Dopieralski], with Logicoma-kun. For the uninitiated, a Logicoma is a robot tank (or “logistics robot”) from the Ghost in the Shell series. [Radomir] decided to bring these cartoon tanks to life – at least in miniature. The bulk of Logicoma-kun is built carefully cut and sculpted acrylic sheet. Movement is via popular 9 gram servos found all over the internet. [Radomir] recently wrote an update outlining his new brain for Logicoma-kun. An Arduino Pro Mini will handle servo control. The main computer will be an ESP8266 running Micropython. I can’t wait to see this little ‘bot take its first steps.

If you want more robotic goodness, check out our brand new mobile robot list! Did I miss your project? Don’t be shy, just drop me a message on That’s it for this week’s Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of!

Autonomous Musical Soundscapes from 42 Fans and 7 Lasers

[dmitry] writes in to let us know about a new project that combines lasers with fans and turns the resulting modulation of the light beams into an autonomous soundscape. The piece is called “divider” and is a large, wall-mounted set of rails upon which seven red lasers are mounted on one end with seven matching light sensors mounted on the other end. Interrupting the lasers’ paths are forty-two brushless fans. Four Arduino Megas control the unit.

3Laser beams shining into light sensors don’t do much of anything on their own, but when spinning fan blades interrupt each laser beam it modulates the solid beams and turns the readings of the sensors on the far end into a changing electrical signal which can be played as sound. Light being modulated by fan blades to create sound is the operating principle behind a Fan Synth, which we’ve discussed before as being a kind of siren (or you can go direct to that article’s fan synth demo video to hear what kind of sounds are possible from such a system.)

This project takes this entire concept of a fan synth further by not only increasing the number of lasers and fans, but by tying it all together into an autonomous system. The lasers are interrupted repeatedly and constantly, but never simultaneously. Listen to and watch it in action in the video below.

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Building a Swarm of Autonomous Ocean Boats

There’s a gritty feel to the Hackerboat project. It doesn’t have slick and polished marketing, people lined up with bags of money to get in on the ground floor, or a flashy name (which I’ll get to in a bit). What it does have is a dedicated team of hackers who are building prototypes to solve some really big challenges. Operating on the ocean is tough on equipment, especially so with electronics. Time and tenacity has carried this team and their project far.

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Autonomous Drones Now Carry People

There are a handful of companies trying to build the first autonomous car, but this project makes us think that they all might be heading in the wrong direction. [Thorstin] wanted to use a quadcopter to transport people, and built a working prototype of an autonomous quadcopter-esque vehicle that is actually capable of lifting a person.

The device isn’t actually a quadcopter anymore; that wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift. It has sixteen rotors in total, making it a sexdecacopter (we suppose). This setup generates 282 pounds of static thrust, which as the video below shows, is enough to lift an average person off of the ground along with the aluminum alloy frame and all of the lithium ion batteries used to provide power to all of those motors.

With the PID control system in place, the device is ready for takeoff! We like hobby projects that suddenly become life-sized and rideable, and we hope to see this one fully autonomous at some point too. Maybe soon we’ll see people ferried from waypoint to waypoint instead of being driven around in their ground-bound autonomous cars.

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Simple Autonomy with an RC Boat

[Vlad] wrote in to tell us about his latest project—an RC boat that autonomously navigates between waypoints. Building an autonomous vehicle seems like a really complicated project, but [Vlad]’s build shows how you can make a simple waypoint-following vehicle without a background in autonomy and control systems. His design is inspired by the Scout autonomous vehicle that we’ve covered before.

[Vlad] started prototyping with an Arduino, a GPS module, and a digital compass. He wrote a quick sketch that uses the compass and GPS readings to control a servo that steers towards a waypoint. [Vlad] took his prototype outside and walked around to make sure that steering and navigation were working correctly before putting it in a boat. After a bit of tweaking, his controller steered correctly and advanced to the next waypoint after the GPS position was within 5 meters of its goal.

boatgifNext [Vlad] took to the water. His first attempt was a home-built airboat, which looked awesome but unfortunately didn’t work very well. Finally he ended up buying a $20 boat off of eBay and made a MOSFET-based motor controller to drive its dual thrusters. This design worked much better and after a bit of PID tuning, the boat was autonomously navigating between waypoints in the water. In the future [Vlad] plans to use the skills he learned on this project to make an autopilot for the 38-foot catamaran his dad is building (an awesome project by itself!). Watch the video after the break for more details and to see the boat in action.

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Self-Assembling Origami Robots


MIT engineers have developed a technique to address the challenges involved in manufacturing robots at a cheap and accessible level. Like a plant folding out its petals, a protein folding into shape, or an insect unveiling its wings, this autonomous origami design demonstrated the ability for a mechanical creature to assemble itself and walk away. The technique opens up the possibility of unleashing swarms of flat robots into hard to reach places. Once on site, the robots mobilize from the ground up.

The team behind the project used flexible print circuit boards made out of paper and polystyrene, which is a synthetic aromatic polymer typically found in the commercially sold children’s toy Shrinky Dinks™. Each hinge had embedded circuits that were mechanically programmed to fold at certain angles. Heat was applied to the composite structure triggering the folding process. After about four minutes, the hinges would cool allowing the polystyrene to harden. Some issues did arise though during the initial design phase due to the amount of electrical current running the robots, which was ten times that of a regular light bulb. This caused the original prototypes to burn up before the construction operation was completed.

In the long-term, Core Faculty Member [Robert] would like to have a facility that would provide everyday robotic assistance to anyone in the surrounding community. This place would be accessible to everyone in the neighborhood helping to solve whatever problems might arise, which sounds awfully like a hackerspace to us. Whether the person required a device to detect gas leaks or a porch sweeping robot, the facility would be there to aid the members living nearby.

A video of [Robert] and [Sam] describing the project comes up after the break:

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