How to Use Lidar with the Raspberry Pi

The ability to inexpensively but accurately measure distance between an autonomous vehicle or robot and nearby objects is a challenging problem for hackers. Knowing the distance is key to obstacle avoidance. Running into something with a small robot may be a trivial problem but could be deadly with a big one like an autonomous vehicle.

My interest in distance measurement for obstacle avoidance stems from my entry in the 2013 NASA Sample Return Robot (SRR) Competition. I used a web camera for vision processing and attempted various visual techniques for making measurements, without a lot of success. At the competition, two entrants used scanning lidars which piqued my interest in them.

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Robots and Crickets

If you watch science fiction movies, the robots of the future look like us. The truth is, though, many tasks go better when robots don’t look like us. Sometimes they are unique to a particular job or sometimes it is useful to draw inspiration from something other than a human being. One professor at Johns Hopkins along with some students decided to look at spider crickets as an inspiration for a new breed of jumping robots.

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32C3: My Robot Will Crush You With Its Soft Delicate Hands!

In his talk at 32C3 [Matthew Borgatti] talked both about his company’s work with NASA toward developing robotic spacesuits and helping people with Cerebral Palsy better control their limbs. What do these two domains have in common? “One-size fits all pneumatic exoskeletons.”

[Matthew] makes a tremendously compelling case for doing something new and difficult in robotics — making robotic systems out of squishy, compliant materials. If you think about it, most robots are hard: made of metal and actuated by motors and gears, cables, or (non-compressible) pneumatic fluid. If you want to build suits that play well with soft and squishy people, they’ll need at least a layer of softness somewhere.

But [Matthew]’s approach is to make everything soft. In the talk, he mentions a few biological systems (octopus arms and goat’s feet) that work exactly because they’re soft. Why soft? Because soft spreads force around automatically and accommodates uneven terrain. And this makes it easier on the people who wear robotic suits and on the designers of the robots who don’t need to worry about the fine detail of the ground they’re walking on.

The talk ended up being very short, but there’s a fantastic Q&A at the end. It’s a must-see. And if you can’t get enough of [Matthew] or squishy robots, we’ve covered his robots before and he even had an entry in the Hackaday Prize.

Robotic Tabletop

Remember pin art? That’s the little box full of pins that you can push something into and the pins take on the shape. You usually use your hand, but any small object works (including, if you are brave enough, your face). [Sean Follmer] (formerly at the MIT Media Lab) developed the reverse of this: a surface made of pins driven by motors. Under computer control, the surface can take on shapes all by itself.

The square pins can be seen in the video below moving and manipulating blocks and using them to build structures out of the blocks. By using the right sequence of pin motions, the blocks can be flipped and even stacked. Magnetic blocks offer even more options.

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Hacklet 83 – Tiny Robot Projects

Hackers, makers, and engineers have been hacking on robot projects since the era of clockwork mechanics. Any robot is a cool project, but there is something particularly attractive about small ones. Maybe it’s the skill required to assemble them, or perhaps it’s the low-cost. Either way, there are lots of palm-sized robot projects on This week on the Hacklet, we’re going to highlight a few of them!

tinyrobot2We start with the granddaddy of them all, [shlonkin] and Tiny robot family. [Shlonkin] built line following robots that can hide under a US half-dollar coin. The robots are simple circuits – an ATtiny85 with an LED and pair of phototransistors. The code is provided both in Arduino’s wiring, and in straight C++. Two coreless motors, normally used in cell phones vibrators or quadcopters, provide the locomotion. These robots only know one thing – moving forward and following a line. They do it well though! We love this project so much that we hosted a tiny robot workshop at the 10th anniversary back in 2014.

toteWhen it comes to tiny walking robots, [Radomir Dopieralski] is the king. Many of his projects are small biped, quadruped, or even hexapod robots. He’s done things with 9 gram nano servos that we thought were impossible. Tote, an affordable spider robot, is his latest creation. Tote is a four-legged bot utilizing 12 9 gram servos. [Radomir] created a custom PCB for Tote, which acts as a carrier for its Arduino Pro Mini Brain. This robot is easily expandable – [Radomir] has experimented with the Teensy 3 series as well. Controlling the robot can be anything from an ESP8266 to an infrared remote control.

botbot[Alan Kilian] may well have the ultimate tease project with Hand-wound inductors for a tiny robot. [Alan] was using some tiny GM-10 motors on his micro-bot. The motors didn’t have inductance for the locked-antiphase drive controller. His solution was to wind some coils to provide a bit of added inductance. The mod worked, current consumption dropped from 116 ma to about 6 ma. We want to know more about that ‘bot though! It’s controlled by a Megabitty, [Monty Goodson’s] ATmega8 controller board from sometime around 2003. The lilliputian board has been very popular with the nano sumo crowd. Other than the controller, motors, and the plywood frame, [Alan] has left us guessing about his robot. If you see him, tell [Alan] to give us more info on his micro robot’s design and construction!


espbot[Ccates] jumped on the tiny robot bandwagon with Tiny wi-fi robot. Rather than go with an Arduino for control, [Ccates] grabbed the popular ESP-8266 WiFi module. The construction of the bot is inspired by [shlonkin’s] tiny robot family up above. This bot is controlled by the Xtensa processor embedded in the ESP-8266. Since it only drives forward, it only takes two GPIO pins to control the transistors driving the motors. Even the diminutive ESP-01 module has enough I/O for that. We’d love see some sensors and a full H-bridge on this micro beastie!


If you want to see more palm-sized robot projects, check out our new tiny robot projects list! These ‘bots are small, so I may have missed yours. If that’s the case, don’t be shy, just drop me a message on That’s it for this week’s Hacklet. As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of!

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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