Nessie, the Educational Robot

At the Lifelong Learning Robotics Laboratory at the Erasmo Da Rotterdam in Italy, robots are (not surprisingly) used to teach all of the fundamentals of robotics. [Alessandro Rossetti] and the students at the lab have been at it for years now, and have finally finished their fifth generation of a robot called Nessie. The big idea is to help teach fundamentals of programming and electronics by building something that actually uses these principles.

The robot is largely 3D printed and uses an FPGA to interact with the physical world through a set of motors and sensors. The robot also uses a Raspberry Pi to hold the robot’s framework. The robot manages the sensors in hardware with readers attached to the CPU AXI bus. The CPU reads their values from memory space, though, so the robot is reported to be quite quick.

The lab is hoping to take their robot to a robotics competition in Bari, Italy. We hope that they perform well there, since we are big fans of any robot that’s designed to teach anyone about robotics and programming. After all, there are robots that help teach STEM in Africa, robots that teach teen girls about robots, and robots that teach everyone.

Variable Stiffness Joints for Robots and More

The human body has many miraculous capabilities that we often take for granted. One of the more subtle ones is the variable stiffness of your joints. In technical terms, stiffness refers to the ability to resist a load. Delicately manipulating an artist’s paint brush, for example, doesn’t require much load resistance, but does require fine control. However, that same artist might pick up a bowling ball with a stiffer joint (and, usually, less fine control).

[Christopher Churchill] and some colleagues have a novel mechanical device that can rapidly change stiffness. The device could have applications in robotics and other devices. It can also transmit or attenuate vibration since non-stiff joints don’t pass vibrations as easily as stiff ones.

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The Challenges of A Laundry Folding Robot

rosie“This is the year of the general purpose home robot!” “2016 is going to be for robots like 1976 was for the home computer!” The problem with statements like those is the fact that we’ve been hearing them since the 1970’s. General purpose home robots still have a long way to go. Sure, we’ve got Roomba, we’ve even got self-driving cars. But we don’t have Rosie from the Jetsons. And while I don’t think we’re going to get to Rosie for a while, there are some simple challenges that can spur development in that direction. One need look no further than one’s own laundry room.

maytagUsing machines to wash and dry laundry isn’t a new concept. Washers and dryers have become commonplace enough that we don’t think of them as robots. Hamilton Smith patented the rotary washing machine in 1858. Maytag has had home machines available for nearly 100 years. Many of the early machines were powered by gasoline engines, as electricity wasn’t common in rural farmhouses. Things have improved quite a bit since then! From the dryer we transfer our laundry to a basket, where it has to be folded. It is this final step that cries out for a homemaking automaton to take this chore out of Everyman’s hands.

As one can imagine, folding laundry is one of those tasks that is easy for humans, but hard for robots. However, it’s not impossible. The idea of this article is to show what has been done, and get people talking. A project like this would take a person or group of people with skills in mechanics, electronics, machine vision, and software. It would also be sure to place well in the 2016 Hackaday Prize.

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Shoot Darts at the Shins of Total Strangers

[Michael Brumlow] found us and sent us a link. Within a few seconds, we were driving a webcam-enabled Nerf dart tank through his office and trying not to hit walls or get stepped on by his co-workers. Unfortunately, it was out of darts at the time, but you can find them all over the floor if you scout around.

screenshot_remote_botAll of the code details, including the link where you can test drive it yourself, are up on [Michael]’s GitHub. The brains are an Intel Edison board, and the brawns are supplied by an Arduino motor controller shield and (for the latest version) a chassis bought from China.

It runs fairly smoothly, considering the long round trip from [Michael]’s office in Texas, through wherever Amazon keeps their Web Services, over to us in Germany and back. Once we got used to the slight lag, and started using the keyboard’s arrow keys for control, we were driving around like a pro.

It’s got a few glitches still, like the camera periodically overheating and running out of WiFi distance. [Michael] said he’d try to keep it charged up and running while you give it a shot. The controls are multiplexed in the cloud, so your chance of steering it is as good as anyone else’s. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when thousands of Hackaday readers try to control it at once!

It takes a certain kind of bravery to put your telepresence robot up on the open Internets. So kudos to you, [Michael], and we hope that you manage to get some work done this week, even though you will have all of Hackaday driving into your cubicle walls.

Cute, Hackable, 3D Printable Robot Family

We first saw the robot Zowi (top row in the banner photo) at Make Munich a few weeks ago, and we were very impressed by how much interesting motion they were getting out of the ‘bot for only using four servo motors. The combination of big feet, strong ankle joints, and clever programming let the cute little bot stand on one leg, do a moonwalk, and even hop. (See the video, below the break.) We knew it was for sale. What we didn’t know is that it was entirely open source.

[Javier Isabel], the inventor, is very good at giving credit where it’s due, and that’s a great thing because his ‘bot is basically an improved BOB robot. That said, you really need to see this thing moving to know what a difference Zowi’s significantly stronger servos and clever programming can make.

But that’s not all! Since everything about Zowi is open, and up on GitHub you can not only 3D print one of your own, but you can easily modify the attractively-boxy case. And a handful of people have taken [Javier] up on the offer, and submitted their modifications back as pull requests. So if you’d rather something mildly more humanoid, and are willing to add a couple more servos, there’s a good basis for your explorations ready to go.

We really like the idea of collaborative toy-robot design, and from what we’ve seen the basic Zowi platform is a winner. Check it out and see if you’re not inspired to add your own personal touch to the design. If you do, be sure to contribute back for others to see!

Thanks [Nils Hitze] for the tip!

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Adorable Matchbox Robot

[wattnotions] has been playing with matches, well the box they come in anyway. One day he was letting synapses fire unsupervised, and wondered if he could build a robot inside of a matchbox. His first prototype was a coin lithium battery and scrounged motors from those 3 US Dollar servos you can buy by the dozen. It scooted around just fine, but it drained the battery instantly and was a little boring.

Next, he etched a board. It had a little PIC micro, a connector for a mini LiPo, and an H bridge. It fired up just fine, and even though it drained the battery way too fast, at least it wasn’t brainless anymore. In our experience, robots tend to discard all the useful data they collect anyway, so being blind wasn’t too much of a problem.

Inspired and encouraged, with synapses gloriously undeterred, [wattnotions] set out to make a version 2. This time he ordered a board from OSHPark, made a 3D model in SketchUp, and proceeded to lock himself out from his own chip. Without a high voltage programmerhe was out of luck. The development was unfortunately put on hold.

It was fun to read along with [wattnotions] as he went on a small robot adventure. We hope he’ll complete a version 3 and have a swarm of the little fellows scooting around.

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Swarm of Robot Boats Coming To An Ocean Near You Soon

Planning a hostile takeover of your local swimming pool? This might help: [Dr Anders Lyhne Christensen] sent us a note about his work at the BioMachines Lab of the Institute of Telecommunications in Portugal. They have been building a swarm of robot boats to experiment with autonomous swarms, with some excellent results.

In an autonomous swarm, each robot makes its own decisions and talks to its neighbors, and the combined behavior of the swarm produces an overall behavior, like ants in a nest. They’ve created swarms that can autonomously navigate, patrol an area or monitor the temperature in an area and return to base to report the results. In an excellent video, [Anders] outlines how they used computational evolution to create these behaviors, randomly mutating a neural net to find the best approach, which is then sent to the real boats.

Perhaps coolest of all: the whole project is open source, with the brains of each boat running on a Raspberry Pi, and a CNC milled foam hull with 3D printed component mounts. Each boat costs about 300 Euro (about $340), but you could reduce the cost a bit by salvaging components and once the less-expensive Pi Zero becomes obtainable. This project will no doubt be useful for many an evil genius who is sick of being splashed by the toughs at the local pool: a swarm of killer robots surrounding them would be an excellent way to keep them at bay.

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