VertiGo Robot Drives Up Walls

This collaboration between ETH and the Disney empire’s research arm is a ultra-light robot that can roll across horizontal surfaces and also transition and climb walls.

The robot has four wheels with one steerable set, but its secret sauce is the two propellers gimbaled on its back. Using these propellers it can move itself across the ground, but also, when approaching a wall, provide enough thrust to overcome the gravity vector.

Naturally, the lighter the robot, the less force will be needed to keep it on the wall. That’s why the frame is made from carbon fiber corrugated sandwich panels. The motors, batteries, and controllers are all also light and small.

We liked how the robot was, apparently, using its propellers to provide additional stability even while on the ground. There is a video after the break, and more information can also be found on the Disney Research webpage.

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Identify Your Devices by Their Unintentional Radiation

RFID was supposed to revolutionize asset tracking, replacing the barcode everywhere. Or at least that was the prediction once tags got under five cents apiece. They still cost seven to fifteen cents, even in bulk, and the barcode is still sitting pretty. [Chouchang (Jack) Yang] and [Alanson Sample] of Disney Research hope to change that.

Instead of tagging every electronic device, they use whatever electromagnetic emissions the device currently produces when it’s powered up. What’s surprising is not that they can tell an iPhone from a toy lightsaber, but that they can tell the toy lightsabers apart. But apparently there’s enough manufacturing and tolerance differences from piece to piece that they appear unique most of the time.

The paper (PDF) goes through the details and procedure. The coolest bit? The sensor they use is an RTL-SDR unit with the radio-mixer front end removed and replaced with a simple transformer. This lets them feed baseband (tuning from 0 to 28.8 MHz) straight into the DAC ADC and on to the computer which does the heavy math. Sawing off the frontend of a TV tuner is a hack, for those of you out there with empty bingo cards.

If you like statistics, you’ll want to read the paper for details about how they exactly do the classification of objects, but the overview is that they first start by figuring out what type of device they’re “hearing” and then focusing on which particular one it is. The measure that they use ends up being essentially a normalized correlation.

While we’re not sure how well this will scale to thousands of devices, they get remarkably good results (around 95%) for picking one device out of five. The method won’t be robust to overclocking or underclocking of the device’s CPU, so we’re concerned about temperature and battery-voltage effects. But it’s a novel idea, and one that’s ripe for the hacker-rebuild. And for the price of an RTL-SDR, and with no additional per-tag outlay as with an RFID system, it’s pretty neat.

Thanks [Static] for the tip! Via Engadget.

Sending The Internet From an LED Lightbulb

The number of things that can carry Internet traffic is always increasing. Now, you can add LED light bulbs to this list, as engineers in Disney Research have just demonstrated a system that transmits Internet traffic using an LED light bulb. This method of communication isn’t new: Visible Light Communication (VLC) has been demonstrated before by Disney and others, but this project puts it into a standard LED light bulb. This bulb has been modified to include an Atheros AR9331 SoC running OpenWRT and an Atmel ATmega328p that controls the LED elements and sensors that send and receive the data. So, the device is acting as a gateway between a WiFi network and a VLC one.

Disney’s new test system (PDF link) isn’t especially fast: it can only carry about 380 to 400 bits per second, so it won’t be streaming video anytime soon. That is definitely fast enough, though to send control data to a toy, or to send a continual stream of updated data to a device in the room, such as an ebook reader with a continually updated encyclopaedia. This being Disney, the authors coin a new phrase to end their paper: The Internet of Toys.

BB-8 is real! But how did they do it?

BB-8 the new droid in the star wars franchise made his first public appearance (YouTube link) at Star Wars Celebration last week. While cast and crew of the movie have long said that BB-8 is real, seeing it up on stage, driving circles around R2D2 takes things to a whole new level. The question remains, how exactly does it work?

new petOur (and probably any other tech geek worth their salt’s) immediate reaction was to think of xkcd’s “New Pet” comic. All the way back in 2008, [Randall Munroe] suggested omnidirectional wheels and magnets could be used to create exactly this kind of ‘bot. Is this what’s going on inside BB-8? No one knows for sure, but that won’t stop us from trying to figure it out!

BB-8’s family tree may actually start with Sphero. Fortune reports  that Sphero was part of Disney’s accelerator program in 2014. Each company in the accelerator program gets a mentor from Disney. Sphero’s mentor was Disney CEO Bob Iger himself.

The Head

So if BB-8’s body is based on a Sphero, how does the head work? The Disney crew has been mum on this so far, but there is plenty of speculation! If you watch the video in HD, several flashes can be seen between the body and head gap. These might be status LEDs on BB-8’s electronics, but they could also be IR LEDs – possibly part of an optical mouse style sensor. Sensor fusion between gyroscopes, accelerometers and the optical flow sensors would make for a robust solution to the inverted pendulum problem presented by BB-8’s head.

How do you think BB-8 works? Is it magnets, motors, or The Force? Let us know in the comments!

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Ask Hackaday: Who is Going to Build This Pneumatic Transmission Thing?


Disney research is doing what they do best, building really cool stuff for Disney and telling the rest of the world how cool they are. This time, it’s a very low friction fluid transmission device designed for animatronics.

From testing a few toy robotic arms, we can say without a doubt that servos and motors are not the way to go if you’re designing robots and animatronics that need lifelike motion. To fix this, a few researchers at Disney Pittsburgh have turned to pneumatics and hydraulics, where one joint is controlled by two sets of pistons. It’s extremely similar to the pneumatic LEGO, but more precise and much more lifelike.

The system uses a pair of cylinders on each joint of a robot. Disney is using a rolling diaphragm to seal the working fluid in its tubes and cylinders. This is an extremely low-friction device without any shakiness or jitters found with simple o-ring pneumatics and hydraulics.

The system is backdriveable, meaning one robotic arm can control another, and the other way around. Since we’re dealing with hydraulics, the cylinders (and robotic/animatronic devices) don’t need to be the same size; a small device could easily control a larger copy of itself, and vice versa.

The devices are fairly simple, with gears, toothed belts, and bits of plastic between them. The only unique part of these robots is the rolling diaphragm, and we have no idea where to source this. It looks like it would be great for some robotics or an Iron Man-esque mech suit, but being able to source the components will be a challenge.

You can check out the videos of these devices below, and if you have any idea on how to build your own, leave a note in the comments.

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Hackaday Links: November 17, 2013


If you purchased a knock-off FM transmitter and were unhappy with its broadcast range [Thiagohersan] shows how to double the range with a simple transistor amplifier circuit. He also hacked it for used without the 12V car socket.

[Patrick Herd] had a project that required him to strip about twenty Mindstorm batteries from their plastic enclosures. It’s not too tough getting into them but it does require drilling out the plastic rivets. He made a jig and used a CNC mill to automate the process.

Speaking of CNC, [Bertho] added some abstraction to distance himself from what he calls the “50+ years archaic syntax and grammar that G-code programs have”. The project is a meta-compiler for G-Code.

If you need a cold one and don’t have a HaDuino on hand you’ll thank yourself for hacking together this five-cent workbench bottle opener.

Just make sure you do all the lathe work for a custom speaker enclosure before you start pounding back those brewskis. Not only does [Shaun’s] creation look modern and stylish, but it boasts more than enough power to bump some tunes.

Here’s a project that adds LED feedback to your XBMC installation. It uses a Raspberry Pi to run the media center software, and a script to monitor it and actuate the lights on an Adafruit add-on board. At first glance you may not think much of it, but this is all the logic control you need to automate your viewing room. Who doesn’t want a home theater that automatically dims once you’ve made your viewing selection?

And finally, [08milluz] snagged some reactive electronics in the form of Disney’s Mickey Mouse ears. Apparently they glow different colors at live shows and based on where they are worn within the park. He did a complete teardown to show off the hardware within. It turns out to be controlled by an MSP430 which are known for their low power consumption. [Thanks Spikeo55]