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.

Cheap, Easy To Build Robot For beginners

Robotics kits are a great way to get folks , young and old, interested in hacking and learning the basics. Quite often, the cost puts them off – it’s no fun if you mess things up while learning how to put an expensive kit together. Many kits are too polished and that leads to beginners feeling that they’ll never be able to build something complex like a robot. The Shonkbot is what the team at Bristol Hackspace came up with for a robot that is obvious in its working and encouragingly easy to build, even for kids (with supervision).  To that effect, they completely avoided custom PCBs and laser cut bits. The Shonkbot is built from easily available parts and some commonly available materials. They aimed to build it for £5, but managed £15. With proper planning and time, they guess it can be brought down to £10.

The Shonkbot is built using an Arduino Nano, two stepper motors with their drivers, a 3xAA battery box and some bits and bobs. Assembly takes about an hour for a 10-year-old and then they can reprogram it in another workshop or at home. The “frame” of the Shonkbot is an old CD-ROM or DVD disk. Everything is hot glued to this frame. At the centre of the disk, a Sharpie is inserted and the Arduino code then allows the robot to draw on paper. Upgrades include adding an IR LED, a photo transistor and a buzzer to allow the Shonkbot to detect objects, or communicate with other Shonkbots. Build instructions are detailed in this document, and the code is available from the Github repository. Here is a photo album from their first build workshop which was held recently.

Thanks to [Matthew Venn] from the Bristol Hackspace for sending in this tip. Check the robot in action in the video below.

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Walk Your Pet Robot

Anyone who’s ever tried to build a bipedal robot will quickly start pulling their own hair out. There are usually a lot of servos involved, and controlling them all in a cohesive way is frustrating to say the least. [Mark] had this problem while trying to get his robot to dance, and to solve it he built a control system for a simple bipedal robot that helps solve this problem.

[Mark]’s robot has six servo motors per leg, for a total of 12 degrees of freedom. Commands are sent to the robot with an RC radio, and the control board that he built, called the Smart Servo Controller, receives the signals and controls the servos appropriately. There are 14 outputs for servos, operating at 12 bits and 50 Hz each, as well as 8 input channels. The servo controller can be programmed on a computer with user-selectable curves for various behaviors for each of the servos on the project. This eliminates the need to write cumbersome programs for simple robot movements, and it looks like it does a pretty good job!

Full disclosure: [Mark] currently has this project up on Kickstarter, but it is a unique take on complex robot control that could help out in a lot of different ways. Since you don’t need to code anything, it could lower the entry barrier for this type of project, possibly opening it up to kids or school projects. Beyond that, even veterans of these types of projects could benefit by not having to do as much brute-force work to get their creations up and moving around!

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Hackaday Prize Entry: OpenBionics

For the last few years now, the 3D printing community has been searching for a groundbreaking application for out little boxes of plastic squirting goodness. On of the most interesting applications the community has stumbled upon is prosthetics.

There have been a lot of people warming up their 3D printers and laser cutters to make prosthetic limbs in recent years. For [OpenBionics]’ entry for The Hackaday Prize, they’re building a prosthetic hand that costs less than $200, weighs less than 300 grams, and can be easily fabricated with 3D printers and laser cutters.

The human hand is the most complex end-effector on the planet, and emulating its range of motion is a difficult task. Still, the [OpenBionics] team is working hard to properly emulate a thumb with three degrees of freedom, putting 144 different grasps on the hand, and making their hand useful with soft fingertips.

Even with all this capability, [OpenBionic]’s robotic hand – motors and all – is about the same size as a normal human hand. That’s incredible, especially when you consider the motors for your hand – muscles – are all in your arm.

The team has put together a video demoing the capabilities of their hand. It’s somewhat remarkable, and able to do everything from lift a coffee cup to holding a pen. You can check that video out below.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Solving The Shortage Of Walking Robots

The world has a severe lack of robots, and the shortage of walking robots is untenable. We were promised flying cars and fusion reactors, yet here we are, 15 years into the twenty-first century without even a robotic pet spider.

[Radomir]’s entry for The Hackaday Prize aims to fix this bizarre oversight of scientific and technological progress. He’s designed a small, inexpensive, but very well designed quadrupod robot that will put full reverse kinematics on your desk for under $50.

To solve humanity’s glaring lack of walking robots, [Radomir] designed Tote, a four-legged robot whose chassis is mostly composed of only 9 gram servos. There are twelve servos in total, three on each of its four legs. It’s an extension of his earlier µKubik robot. While the µKubik was powered by Python, the Tote is all Arduinofied, calculating the trajectories of each leg dozens of times a second with an Arduino Pro Mini.

This isn’t the only walking robot kit on; last year, [The Big One] created Stubby the Teaching Hexapod. Even though Stubby featured six legs, it’s still remarkably similar to Tote; 9 gram servos provide all the locomotion, and all the software is running on a relatively small ATMega microcontroller. Both are great introductions to walking robots, and both bots will surely be capable and just rulers of mankind after the robot apocalypse.

The 2015 Hackaday Prize is sponsored by:

Tiny Robot Jazz

Microcontroller-based projects don’t have to be fancy to be fantastic. Case in point: [r0d0t]’s “Musicomatic: the random jazz machine“. Clever programming and a nice case can transform a few servos and a microcontroller into something delightful.

musicomat_schematicsHardware-wise, there’s really nothing to see here; a speaker and some servos are hooked up to an ATmega328. We think it’s cute to have the microcontroller control its own power supply through a relay, but honestly a MOSFET in place of the relay or better still using the AVR’s shutdown sleep mode would be the way to go.

Nope, where this project shines is the programming. Technically, it might make some of you cringe — full of blocking delays and other coding “taboos”. But none of that matters, because [r0d0t] put his work in where it counts: the music. You simply must hear it for yourself in the clip after the break.

The basis of making music that humans like is rhythm, so [r0d0t] doesn’t leave this entirely to chance. The array “rhythms” has seven beat patterns that get randomly selected. The other thing humans like is predictability and repetition, so choruses and “improvs” repeat as well. All of the random notes are constrained to the pentatonic scale, which keeps it from ever sounding too bad. (The secret sauce of Kenny G.)

In short, [r0d0t] packs a lot of basic music theory into a very basic device, and comes up with something transcendent. We’re a bit reminded of the Yellow Drum Machine robot, and that’s high praise. Both projects are testaments to building something simple and then investing the time and effort into the code to make the project awesome.

For another slice of [r0d0t]’s excellent minimalist pie, check out his take on the classic Snake game: Twisted Snake.

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Robot Camel Jockeys

You might think we’re sinking to lowest-common-denominator, click-bait headlines like the rest of the online press. We’re not. The New York Times Video Notebook series has a story on camel racing that you’ve just got to see in the video after the break.

robotPreviously, the camel races in Abu Dhabi had used small children as jockeys because they’re lightweight. Unfortunately, this lead to illegal trafficking of small children, mostly orphans. That won’t do. So they came up with a technological solution.

Strap a cordless drill with a purpose-built whip in the chuck onto the back of your camel. Add a car-remote keyfob to activate, and a two-way radio so that you can shout encouragement into your animal’s ear at just the right times. Now just chase the racers down the highway in an SUV and it’s like you’re there on the camel’s back!

talkingWe love the little silk suits that the drillbot-jockeys get to wear, but we’re not sure that cordless drills with walkie-talkies and remote controls count as “robots” really, because they don’t do anything autonomous. We think they’re more accurately described as “telepresence agents”.

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