Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Walking Robots From Scratch

The usual way robotics is taught – and nearly everything, for that matter – is simple. A teacher gets a pre-built module or kit, teaches the students how to use the kit, and class is adjourned. There are significant and obvious drawbacks to this. [Kevin Harrington]’s entry for the Hackaday Prize turns that pedagogy on its head. It’s a robotics development platform that encourages everyone to create their own robots from scratch, starting with the question, ‘how many legs do you want your robot to have’.

Bowler Studio uses OpenCV for image processing, a kinematics engine, a JCSG-based CAD and 3D modeling engine to interface with motors, create 3D models according to kinematic models, feed imaging data to a robot, and create graphical interfaces for robots. It’s an entire robotics creation studio in a single package, and of course everything can be backed up to the cloud.

The electronic backbone is another one of [Kevin] and Neuron Robotics’ projects, DyIO, a USB peripheral that makes for a great robotics platform. The DyIO can control up to 24 servos, enough for a very, very complex robot, and also has the ability to control motors, read encoders, or just blink pins.

These two projects together make for a great way to learn the ins and outs of robots that are a little more complex than a simple wheeled robot, and expandable enough to make some really, really cool projects

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Hackaday Prize Semifinalist: Balancing Humanoid Robots

A few years after we all tire of our remote control BB-8 droids we’ll all have personal human robots designed specifically for human interaction. We’re not there yet, but [Poh Hou Shun] out of Singapore is working on a robot like this for the Hackaday Prize. It’s called OSCAR, the Omni Service Cooperative Assistance Robot.

As with any robotics platform, the use case defines the drive system; you’ll want knobby tires or treads if you’re building a sumo bot, and a strange articulating suspension if you’re driving over alien terrain. OSCAR is built for humans, and this means a humanoid chassis is required. Legs, however, aren’t. Instead of a complex system of motors and joints, OSCAR is balancing on a ball. No, it won’t go up stairs, but neither will many other robots either.

So far, [Poh Hou Shun] has built the basics of a drive system, and it’s surprisingly similar to the BB-8 droids we’re still not tired of yet. On the bottom is a large ball held in place with a spring-loaded retainer. On top of this are three stepper motors, each holding an omni wheel. It will work, there’s no doubt about that, and with the right humanoid chassis, some sensors, and a lot of software, this could be a very cool social robot.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

3D Printed Kinetic Art

Artificial muscles and soft robotics don’t get the respect they deserve, but [mikey77] is doing some very interesting work with artificial muscles that can be made on just about any 3D printer.

Like other artificial muscles and soft robotic actuators we’ve seen – like this walking sea slug and this eerie tentacle – [mikey77]’s muscles are powered by air. Instead of the usual casting method, he’s printing these muscles from Ninjaflex, a flexible plastic that is compatible with most 3D printers.

As they come off the printer, these 3D printed pneumatic muscles leak, and that means [mikey77] has to seal them. For that, he created a sealant out of Loctite fabric glue thinned with MEK. The addition of MEK dissolves the outer layer of Ninjaflex, allowing the glue to bond very, very well to the printed muscle.

So far, [mikey77] has created a pneumatic flower that blooms when air is added. He’s also created a muscle that can lift more than four pounds of weight with the help of a 3D printed skeleton. It’s a great way to experiment with flexible robots and pneumatic muscles, and we can’t wait to see what weird creatures can be created with these actuators.

Thanks [Lloyd] for sending this one in.

Brick Laying Robot Does It Better

Meet SAM, the Semi Automated Mason. SAM can lay bricks three times faster than a normal brick layer. SAM isn’t planning on taking away any jobs yet though — it still needs a human mason following behind to clean up the mortar.

The robot consists of a standard 6-axis industrial robot arm mounted to a track system with a conveyor belt style feeder of bricks. It picks up each brick, covers the side with mortar, and places it next to the last brick it laid. A mason still has to do the tricky parts, like corners and aesthetics — but SAM is getting better — it can very easily follow a pixelated map of an image and place bricks up to half an inch in or out from the wall, to create a embossed image.

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Transformers, Birthday Cakes in Disguise

[Russel Munro] decided to go all-out for his son’s birthday cake: he made a Transformers robot cake that, well, transforms from a truck into a robot, Optimus Prime style. His impressive build has the actions of the original: first, the front rears up to lift the head, then the back lifts to form the body and the head and arms pop out of the top. Underneath the thin fondant exterior is a 3D printed body, driven by a mechanism in the base. He used fishing line to lift the parts, which is pulled by a motor salvaged from a CD player, being driven by an EasyDriver board from Sparkfun.

The main issue he had to overcome was weight: apparently he underestimated the weight of the fondant that covers the cake, and had to do some last-minute work to strengthen the drive mechanism, and skip plans for the more ornately decorated version that his wife had planned. But the look of glee on his son’s face when he operates it at the party is the best bit. In these days of CGI and computer games, it is good to remind the kids that there is still a lot of fun to be found in ingenuity and liberal quantities of hot glue.

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Retrotechtacular: Robots, Robots Everywhere, with Kitschy Pronunciation

One of the great things about the human intellect is that we have the ability to build machines of varying complexity to do our bidding. As a major proponent of technology, the Chevrolet automobile corporation once dreamed of a future where the American housewife’s most mundane tasks are handled with the push of a button—one that sets a robot butler into action.

Chevy shows us what this future might look like in this short film, which they presented at the 1940 World’s Fair. A housewife’s faithful ‘robot’, pronounced throughout the picture as ‘robe-it’, has gone on the fritz. Naturally, she calls for a repairman. We see from the console controller that Roll-Oh the Robe-it can take care of all kinds of housewifely duties: he can answer the door and the phone, wash dishes, clean house, make beds, fetch hats, get dinner, and fix the furnace (and only the furnace). And that SCRAM! function? That’s never explained. We like to think it has to do with getting kids off the lawn, or could be used in conjunction with ‘get door’ to chase away would-be burglars. We get a glimpse of this when Roll-Oh answers the door and scares the daylights out of a young [Gary Sinise*] delivering flowers in a cop uniform.

Roll-Oh’s upper limbs have several Swiss Army knife-like implements in them. He uses a sharp one to cut the ribbon off of the flower box. Upon seeing the flowers, he gives them a gentle misting with his sprayer attachment. Dropped petals are no problem for Roll-Oh. He promptly vacuums them up from the thin industrial sound stage carpet with his big metal feet. Roll-Oh is then tasked with getting dinner. This amounts to him painstakingly opening a couple of cans and lighting candles with the torch hidden in his face.

While Roll-Oh the large ductwork butler is only a dream, Chevy wants you to know that smaller robe-its are all around us already. They’re regulating the heat in our stoves, browning our bread without burning it, and brewing our coffee in cool double-globe glass percolators. These tiny servants are capable of performing other tasks, like shutting off machinery when humans are too close, or sensing heat and engaging fire suppression systems. There is brief mention of something called the Petomat, an automatic dog feeding system which is essentially a bowl of food hidden in a latched box. The latch opens rather violently when the alarm clock connected to it goes off.

Robe-its are also performing more serious tasks, like keeping airplanes level and headed in the right direction. Of course, they’re also abundant in Chevrolet automobiles. A small one in the carburetor administers the proper mix of “gasoline calories and fresh air vitamins” to the engine. It’s rare to get to this level of technical detail, you know. Others watch over the spark, the intake manifold, and the voltage regulation. Up in the cab, friendly robe-its will happily traverse the AM dial at the push of a pre-set.

*Probably not actually [Gary Sinise].

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RIP: HitchBot

Equal parts art project and social media experiment, with a dash of backyard hackery “robotics” thrown in for good measure, hitchBot was an experiment in the kindness of strangers. That is, the kindness of strangers toward a beer bucket filled with a bunch of electronics with a cute LED smiley face.

The experiment came to a tragic end (vandalism, naturally) in Philadelphia PA, after travelling a month across Canada, ten days in Germany, and yet another month across the Netherlands. It survived two weeks in the USA, which is more than the cynics would have guessed, but a few Grand Canyons short of the American Dream.

Professors [David Smith] and [Frauke Zeller] built hitchBot to see how far cuteness and social media buzz could go. [Smith], a former hitchhiker himself, also wanted hitchBot to be a commentary on how society’s attitudes toward hitching and public trust have changed since the 70s. Would people would pick it up on the side of the street, plug it in to their own cigarette lighters, and maybe even take it to a baseball game? Judging by hitchBot’s Twitter feed, the answer was yes. And for that, little bucket, we salute you!

But this is Hackaday, and we don’t pull punches, even for the recently deceased. It’s not clear how much “bot” there was in hitchBot. It looks like it had a GPS, batteries, and a solar cell. We can’t tell if it took its own pictures, but the photos on Twitter seem to be from another perspective. It had enough brains inside to read out Wikipedia entries and do some rudimentary voice recognition tasks, so it was a step up from Tweenbots but was still reassuringly non-Terminator.

Instead, hitchBot had more digital marketing mavens and social media savants on its payroll than [Miley Cyrus] and got tons of press coverage, which seems to have been part of the point from the very start. And by writing this blog post, we’re playing right into [Smith] and [Zeller]’s plan. If you make a robot / art project cute enough to win the hearts of many, they might just rebuild it. [Margaret Atwood] has even suggested on Twitter that people might crowdfund-up a hitchBot 2.0.

Our suggestion? Open-source the build plans, and let thousands of hitchBots take its place.