Harvard’s Microrobotic Lab Sinks RoboBees and Claims it was on Purpose

What do you call tiny flying robots that undoubtedly emit a buzzing noise as they pass by? Mosquitoes are universally hated, as are wasps, so the logical name is RoboBees.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has been cooking up these extremely impressive tiny robots in their Microrobotics lab. The swarms use piezoelectric actuators to produce the mechanical force to drive the wings, which can be independently controlled.This isn’t the first time we’ve looked in on the Robobees, but the most recent news revealed the ability to swim, and dive (term used generously) into water.

This may not sound like much, but previously the robots lacked the ability to break the surface tension of water. To sink, the wings need a coating of surfactant. Once submerged, the bots lack the ability to transition back from water to air. But we won’t be surprised to see that ability added as a feature while the scope of the project continues to creep. So yes, you can jump into water to escape bees but not to escape Robobees.

Diving isn’t the only wonder to behold. The ‘head’ of the RoboBee is utterly fascinating. It’s constructed by folding the PCB into a pyramid like structure, 4 sides of the head include a photo-transistor covered by a diffused lens which the bot uses for self positioning by sensing changes between the bright light of the sky and absence thereof below the horizon. This concept is taken directly from biological self-righting systems found on the head of most insects, however Harvard’s version has one more sensor than the stock 3 seen on insects. Take that, nature!

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Hand Controlled Robot uses Accelerometer

What do orchestra conductors, wizards, and Leap controller users have in common? They all control things by just waving their hands. [Saddam] must have wanted the same effect, so he created a robot that he controls over wireless using hand gestures.

An accelerometer reads hand motions and sends them via an RF module to an Arduino. This is a bit of a trick, because the device produces an analog value and [Saddam] uses some comparators to digitize the signal for the RF transmitter. There is no Arduino or other CPU on the transmit side (other than whatever is in the RF module).

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Talk To The (Robotic) Hand

Robotic hacker [Andrea Trufini] apparently likes choices. Not only does his robotic arm have six degrees of freedom, but it has a variety of ways he can control it. The arm’s software can accept commands through a programming language, via potentiometers, an infrared remote, or–the really interesting part–through spoken commands.

The videos don’t show too much of the build detail, but the arm is mainly constructed of laser cut plywood and uses an Arduino. Hopefully, we’ll see more particulars about the build soon but for now have a look at a similar project.

The software (myrobotlab) is on github and looks very impressive. The Java-based framework has a service-oriented architecture, with modules that support common processors (like the Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and Beagle Board) along with I/O devices (like motors, sound devices, and that Leap Motion controller you just had to buy). As you might expect from the demonstration found below, there are speech to text and text to speech services, too. Like a lot of open source projects, some of these services are more ready for prime time than others but that just means you can contribute your hacks back to the project.

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My Robot Army @ Maker Faire

For a few years now I’ve been developing an interactive army of delta robots. This ongoing project is fueled by my desire to control many mechanical extremities like an extension of my body (I’m assuming I’m not the only one who fantasizes about robots here).

IMG_1846Since my army doesn’t have a practical application… other than producing pretty light patterns and making the user feel extremely cool for a minute, I guess you’d call it art. In the past I’ve held a Kickstarter to fund the production of my art which I can now happily show at cool events with interesting people; Maker Faire being one of them.

Interactivity and Sprawling Crowds

Last year, for our debut at the big Bay Area Maker Faire, my collaborator, [Mark], and I displayed a smaller sampling of 30 robots for our installation. We also decided to create an interactive aspect for others to experience. After the end of our crowdfunding period last March, we had a little over a month to do any development before the big event, so our options were slim. The easy solution was to jam our delta code into the hand tracking demo which comes with the Xbox Kinect’s Open NI within Processing. This was cool enough to exhibit, but we hadn’t really anticipated how it would go over in an environment as densely packed as the dark room at Maker Faire.

We should have known better. Both of us were aware that there would be many, many children… all with micro hands to confuse and bewilder the Kinect, but we did it anyway. Our only resolve was to implement the feature that would force the Kinect to track one hand at a time, only after being waved at in a very particular fashion. After needing to explain this stipulation to every person who stopped by our booth over the course of the weekend, we decided never to use the Kinect for crowds ever again; lesson learned.

Delta Robots and DMX

Over the past year since that experience, we’ve tripled the size of the installation and brainstormed some better demo ideas. As of now, the robots are all individually addressable over an RS485 bus, and we use the DMX protocol over a CAT5 cable to send commands. If you aren’t familiar with it, DMX is used in show production to control stage lighting… to which there is a super neat and free application called QLC+ that allows you to effectively orchestrate the motion and color of many individual light units; perfect for our cause.

qlcDeltasFunctionally, each of the 84 delta robots in the installation believes that it is a stage light (robots with identity issues). We mapped the X and Y axis of the end effector to the existing pan and tilt values, and the z axis to the beam focus value. The RGB of the LED mounted in the end effector of each delta maps directly to the RGB value of the stage light.

By using the sliders in the QLC+ GUI, I could select groups of robots and create presets for position and color. This was great, someone like me who doesn’t really write a lot of code could whip up impressive choreography with little sweat. Additionally, the program comes with a nice visualizer, where you can layout virtual nodes and view your effects as you develop them.

This is the layout of our installation mapped in QLC+. The teal and purple sliders around each light represent pan and tilt (or in our case X and Y):


Lighting control was an interesting solution. Having autonomous robots this year changed how people responded to them, as they were less like an army you’d command and more of a hypnotic field of glowing grass.

[Mark] and I are considering picking up some flex sensors and maybe playing with the Leap or an EEG headset as a means to reintroduce the interactive aspect. Bottom line, I have this cool new toy that I can’t wait to play with over the summer!

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Twisted String Actuators

[Travis] tells us about a neat actuator concept that’s as old as dirt. It’s capable of lifting 7kg when powered by a pager motor, and the only real component is a piece of string.

The concept behind the twisted string actuator, as it’s known to academia, is as simple as putting a motor on one end of a piece of string, tying the other end off to a load, and putting a few twists in the string. It’s an amazingly simple concept that has been known and used for thousands of years: ballistas and bow-string fire starters use the same theory.

Although the concept of a twisted string actuator is intuitively known by anyone over the age of six, there aren’t many studies and even fewer projects that use this extremely high gear ratio, low power, and very cheap form of linear motion. A study from 2012 (PDF) put some empirical data behind this simple device. The takeaway from this study is that tension on the string doesn’t matter, and more strands or larger diameter strands means the actuator shrinks with a fewer number of turns. Fewer strands and smaller diameter strands take more turns to shrink to the same length.

As for useful applications of these twisted string actuators, there are a few projects that have used these systems in anthropomorphic hands and elbows. No surprise there, really; strings don’t take up much space, and they work just like muscles and tendons do in the human body.

Thanks [ar0cketman] for the link.

Hacklet 30 – Robot Arm Projects

Robot arms – they do everything from moving silicon wafers to welding cars. Many a hacker has dreamt of having their own robot arm to serve them beer help them build projects. This week’s Hacklet features some of the best robot arm projects on Hackaday.io!

robotarm1We start with [4ndreas] who is building this incredible 3D Printable Robot Arm. Inspired by large industrial robots, [4ndreas] has given us an entirely 3D printable design. [4ndreas’] 3D design experience really shows here. This arm looks like it just finished work at a local assembly line! The arm is BIG too – printing the parts took him about a week, and used around 1.2kg of ABS filament! [4ndreas] has recently split the project off into two halves: his blue arm is driven by stepper motors, while the orange arm is a DC motor affair. Both of the arms can use his awesome gripper design. Check out the project page for videos of the arm in action!

6dofarmNext up is [Dan Royer] and his 6DOF Robot Arm. [Dan’s] didn’t want to spend upwards of $10,000 on an industrial arm, so he built his own from wood, plastic, and easily obtainable parts. As the name implies, the arm has 6 degrees of freedom. The electronics consist of beefy NEMA 17 stepper motors and a RUMBA controller, which was originally designed for 3D printers. Dan even created some novel encoder mounts. Each joint has an encoder, which will allow the robot to run as a closed loop system. [Dan] originally entered this arm in The Hackaday Prize 2014. While it didn’t get him to space, we’re betting it will be able to get him a soda!


No robot arm Hacklet would be complete without featuring [ben.phenoptix] and the awesome MeArm. MeArm is a pocket-sized robot arm which uses tiny 9 gram servos for locomotion. It’s built from laser cut acrylic and standard hardware. We loved the MeArm so much that we featured it as one of the challenges in our Embedded Hardware Workshop in Munich. More recently, [Ben] and MeArm have had a great run on Kickstarter. Let’s hope those arms are good at stuffing, addressing, and mailing out packages!


owiFinally we have [Kenji Larsen] with Reactron material transporter. The material transporter is just a small part of [Kenji’s] larger Reactron project. It started with an OWI-535 robot arm. The OWI is really a toy – a plastic kit which builds an open loop DC motor driven arm. [Kenji] has put some serious time into modifying his particular arm. He experimented with molding his own potentiometers for each joint before settling on a printed circuit board based design. Once the new system was in place, he found that his resistors were good for about 10,000 cycles. Not bad for a modified toy!

There are quite a few robot arm projects we weren’t able to cover in this edition of The Hacklet – you can check them all out on our brand new Robot Arm Projects List!

That’s it for this Hacklet, As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of Hackaday.io!

Gift Your Next Robot With the Brain of a Roundworm

A group of developers called [OpenWorm] have mapped the 302 neurons of the Caenorhabditis elegans species of roundworm and created a virtual neural network that can be used to solve all the types of problems a worm might encounter. Which, when you think about it, aren’t much different from those a floor-crawling robots would be confronted with.


In a demo video released by one of the projects founders, [Timothy Busbice], their network is used to control a small Lego-rover equipped with a forward sonar sensor. The robot is able to stop before it hits a wall and determine an appropriate response, which may be to stop, back up, or turn. This is all pretty fantastic when you compare these 302 neural connections to any code you’ve ever written to accomplish the same task! It might be a much more complex route to the same outcome, but its uniquely organic… which makes watching the little Lego-bot fascinating; its stumbling around even looks more like thinking than executing.

I feel obligated to bring up the implications of this project. Since we’re all thinking about it now, let’s all imagine the human brain similarly mapped and able to simulate complex thought processes. If we can pull this off one day, not only will we learn a lot more about how our squishy grey hard drives process information, artificial intelligence will also improve by leaps and bounds. An effort to do this is already in effect, called the connectome project, however since there are a few more connections to map than with the c. elegans’ brain, it’s a feat that is still underway.

The project is called “open”worm, which of course means you can download the code from their website and potentially dabble in neuro-robotics yourself. If you do, we want to hear about your wormy brain bot.

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