Multipurpose Robot For the Masses

As the cost of almost every technology comes falling down, from electronics to batteries to even tools like 3D printers, the cost to build things formerly out of reach of most of us becomes suddenly very affordable. At least, that’s what [John Choi] has found by building a completely DIY general purpose robot for around $2000.

OK, so $2000 isn’t exactly “cheap” but considering that something comparable (like Baxter) costs north of what a new car would cost means that [John] has dropped the price for a general-purpose robot by an order of magnitude. And this robot doesn’t skimp on features, either. It has a platform that allows it to navigate rooms, two manipulating limbs with plenty of servos, a laptop “head” that allows for easy interface, testing, and programming, and an Arduino Mega that allows it to interface with any sensors or other hardware with ease. It’s also modular so it can be repaired and transported easily, and it uses open source software and open hardware so it’s easy to build on.

This robot is an impressive piece of work that should help bring this technology to more than just high-end factories and research labs. They’ve already demonstrated the robot watering plants, playing the piano, picking things up, and many other tasks. We’d say that they’re well on their way to their goal of increasing the number of students and hobbyists who have access to this technology. If the $2k price tag is still too steep, though, there are other ways of getting into robotics without diving headfirst into a Baxter-like robot.

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The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Cloning Open-Source Hardware

We’re great proponents (and beneficiaries) of open-source hardware here at Hackaday. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that the free sharing of ideas has had on the hacker hardware scene. Plus, if you folks didn’t write up the cool projects that you’re making, we wouldn’t have nearly as much to write about.

We also love doing it ourselves. Whether this means actually etching the PCB or just designing it ourselves and sending it off to the fab, we’re not the types to pick up our electronics at the Buy More (except when we’re planning to tear them apart). And when we don’t DIY, we like our electrons artisanal because we like to support the little guy or girl out there doing cool design work.

So it’s with a moderately heavy heart that we’ll admit that when it comes to pre-built microcontroller and sensor boards, I buy a lot of cheap clones. Some of this is price sensitivity, to be sure. If I’m making many different one-off goofy projects, it just doesn’t make sense to pay the original-manufacturer premium over and over again for each one. A $2 microcontroller board just begs to be permanently incorporated into give-away projects in a way that a $20 board doesn’t. But I’m also positively impressed by some of the innovation coming out of some of the clone firms, to the point that I’m not sure that the “clone” moniker is fair any more.

This article is an attempt to come to grips with innovation, open source hardware, and the clones. I’m going to look at these issues from three different perspectives: the firm producing the hardware, the hacker hobbyist purchasing the hardware, and the innovative hobbyist who just wants to get a cool project out to as many people as possible. They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but can cloning go too far? To some extent, it depends on where you’re sitting.

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Conjuring Capacitive Touch Sensors from Paper and Aluminum Foil

Stumbling around YouTube, we found what has to be the lowest-tech method of producing a touchpad to make a capacitive touch keyboard, and we just had to share it with you. If you’re afraid of spoilers, skip down to the video below the break now.

[James Eckert] got his hands on a Freescale MPR121 capacitive touch sensor. The chip in question speaks I2C and senses up to twelve simultaneous capacitive sense electrodes; break-out boards are available in all of the usual places. It’s a sweet little part.

So [James] had to make a twelve-key capacitive keyboard on the quick. He printed out a key template on paper — something that he does often in his woodwork — and spray-glued aluminum foil on the back side. The video doesn’t say how many hours he spent with the razor blade tracing it all out, but the result is a paper, foil, and packing tape keyboard that seems to work just fine.

A pin-header was affixed to the foil with conductive paint and more tape. If you’ve ever tried soldering directly to aluminum foil, you’d know why. (And if you’ve got any other good tips for connecting electrically to aluminum foil, we’d love to hear them.)

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Want a low-cost ARM platform? Grab a Prepaid Android Phone!

What would you pay for a 1.2Ghz dual-core ARM computer with 1GB RAM, 4GB onboard flash, 800×600 display, and 5 megapixel camera? Did we mention it also has WiFi, Bluetooth, and is a low power design, including a lithium battery which will run it for hours? Does $15 sound low enough? That’s what you can pay these days for an Android cell phone. The relentless march of economies of scale has finally given us cheap phones with great specs. These are prepaid “burner” phones, sold by carriers as a loss leader. Costs are recouped in the cellular plan, but that only happens if the buyer activates said plan. Unlike regular cell phones, you aren’t bound by a contract to activate the phone. That means you get all those features for $15-$20, depending on where you buy it.

android-logo-transparent-backgroundThe specs I’m quoting come from the LG Optimus Exceed 2, which is currently available from Amazon in the USA for $20. The same package has been available for as little as $10 from retail stores in recent weeks. The Exceed 2 is just one of several low-cost Android prepaid phones on the market now, and undoubtedly the list will change. How to keep up with the current deals? We found an unlikely place. Perk farmers. Perk is one of those “We pay you to watch advertisements” companies. We’re sure some people actually watch the ads, but most set up “farms” of drone phones which churn through the videos. The drones earn the farmer points which can be converted to cash. How does this all help us? In order to handle streaming video, Perk farmers want the most powerful phones they can get for the lowest investment. Subreddits like /r/perktv have weekly “best deals” posts covering prepaid phones. There are also tutorials on rooting and debloating current popular phones like the Whirl 2 and the Exceed 2.

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A Low Cost Bench Supply

Everyone needs a power supply on their bench, but a standard lab supply isn’t cheap. [ludzinc]’s PSU Console is a cheap alternative, which provides the basic features you’d expect in a lab supply.

The basis of this PSU is a DC/DC module based on the LM2596 step down switching regulator. These modules cost less than a single LM2596, but have all the required components for a buck DC/DC converter. Sure, they might not last forever, and they’re not the most efficient regulators, but the price is right.

The front panel has four displays for voltage and current, which are just low cost voltmeter displays. The potentiometers are used for adjusting the voltage of the DC/DC, and controlling the current limiter. This limiter monitors current through a shunt, and shuts off a MOSFET when the limit is exceeded.

The final product looks like something that’s ready for daily use, and was much cheaper than most supplies with these features. These low cost DC/DC modules are worth a look if you’re considering a similar build.

An Adjustable Sit/Stand Desk for Under $100

[Cornel Masson] is a 46-year-old computer programmer. He’s been working on his computer for the last 30 years. Computer work can be good for the wallet but it can be bad for our health, particularly the neck and back. You can purchase adjustable desks to allow you to change positions from sitting to standing, but unfortunately these desks are often expensive. [Cornel] took matters into his own hands and build his own adjustable riser for under $100.

To start, [Cornel] used a typical computer desk. He didn’t want to build the entire thing from scratch. Instead he focused on building a riser that sits on top of the desk, allowing him to change the height of both the monitor and keyboard. His design used mostly wood, aluminum stock, threaded rods, and drawer slides.

The main component is the monitor stand and riser. The riser is able to slide up and down thanks to four drawer slides mounted vertically. [Cornel] wanted his monitor to move up and down with ease, which meant he needed some kind of counter weight. He ended up using a gas strut from the trunk of a Nissan, which acts as a sort of spring. The way in which it is mounted makes for a very close approximation of his monitor’s weight. The result is a monitor that can be raised or lowered very easily. The stand also includes a locking mechanism to keep it secured in the top position.

The keyboard stand is also mounted to drawer slides, only these are in the horizontal position. When the monitor is lowered for sitting, the keyboard tray is removed from the keyboard stand. The stand can then be pushed backwards, overlapping the monitor stand and taking up much less space. The keyboard stand has small rollers underneath to help with the sliding. The video below contains a slideshow of images that do a great job explaining how it all works.

Of course if replacing the entire desk is an option go nuts.

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Simple Directional WiFi Antenna

Back in 2007, [Stathack] rented an apartment in Thailand. This particular apartment didn’t include any Internet access. It turned out that getting a good connection would cost upwards of $100 per month, and also required a Thai identification card. Not wanting to be locked into a 12-month contract, [Stathack] decided to build himself a directional WiFi antenna to get free WiFi from a shop down the street.

The three main components of this build are a USB WiFi dongle, a baby bottle, and a parabolic Asian mesh wire spoon. The spoon is used as a reflector. The parabolic shape means that it will reflect radio signals to a specific focal point. The goal is to get the USB dongle as close to the focal point as possible. [Stathack] did a little bit of math and used a Cartesian equation to figure out the optimal location.

Once the location was determined, [Stathack] cut a hole in the mesh just big enough for the nipple of the small baby bottle. The USB dongle is housed inside of the bottle for weatherproofing. A hole is cut in the nipple for a USB cable. Everything is held together with electrical tape as needed.

[Stathack] leaves this antenna on his balcony aiming down the street. He was glad to find that he is easily able to pick up the WiFi signal from the shop down the street. He was also surprised to see that he can pick up signals from a high-rise building over 1km away. Not bad for an antenna made from a spoon and a baby bottle; plus it looks less threatening than some of the cantenna builds we’ve seen.