Hackaday Prize Entry: Micro Robots For Education

[Joshua Elsdon] and [Thomas Branch] needed a educational hardware platform that would fit into the constrained spaces and budgets of college classes. Because nothing out there that was cheap, simple and capable enough to fit their program, the two teachers for robotics at the Imperial College Robotics Society set out to build their own – and entered the Hackaday Prize with a legion of open source Micro Robots.

These small robots have a base area of 2 cmand a price tag of about £10 (about $14) each, once they are produced in quantities. They feature two onboard stepper motors, an RGB-LED, battery, a line-following sensor, collision-sensors and a bidirectional infrared transmitter for communicating with a master system, the ‘god bot’. The master system is based on a Raspberry Pi with little additional hardware. It multiplexes the IR-communication with all the little robots and simultaneously tracks their position and orientation through a camera, identifying them via their colored onboard LED. The master system also provides a programming interface for the robots, so that no firmware flashing procedure is required for students to get their code running. This is a well-designed, low-cost multi-robot system, and with onboard sensors, stepper motor odometry, and absolute positioning feedback, these little robots can be taught quite a few tricks.

Building tiny robots comes with a lot of regular-sized challenges, and we’re delighted to follow [Joshua Elsdon] and [Thomas Branch] on their journey from assembling the tiny PCBs over experimenting with 3D printing and casting techniques to produce the tiny wheels to the ROS programming. The diligent duo is present in the Hackaday prize twice: With their own Micro Robots project and with their contribution to the previously covered ODrive – an open source BLDC servo controller. We are already curious about their next feat! The below video shows a successful test of the camera feedback integration into the ROS.

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Data Logging; Everyone’s Doing It, Why Aren’t You?

Between Tesla Motors’ automobiles and SpaceX’s rockets, Elon Musk’s engineers just have to be getting something right. In part, SpaceX’s success in landing their first stage rockets is due to analysis of telemetry data. You can see some of the data from their launch vehicles on the live videos and there is surely a lot more not shown.

An article in MIT Technology Review provides similar insights in how Tesla came from behind in autonomous vehicle operation by analyzing telemetry from their cars. Since 2014 their Model S received an increasing number of sensors that all report their data over the vehicle’s always-on cellular channel. Sterling Anderson of Tesla reported they get a million miles of data every 10 hours.

Image Credit Tesla
Image Credit Tesla

The same approach can help us to improve our systems but many believe creating a log of key data is costly in time and resources. If your system is perfect (HA HA!) that would be a valid assessment. All too often such data becomes priceless if analysis explains why your drone or robot wanted to go left into a building instead of right into the open field.

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Plastic Battlebots Might Bite Your Hand Off

The folks at Fetch Robotics do love a good game of combat robots. Time is tight these days, however, so putting together a good ol’ 220-pounder for Robogames is a dream few of us can realize. Instead, the Fetch team hosted their own Plastic fantastic battlebots competition to blow off some steam, and the results are in!

Battlebots enter the ring built from a frame of entirely plastic parts and weighing a humble 3lbs. Just like Battlebots and Robogames, they’ll follow a 2-minute episode of hack-and-slash after which judges determine the winner. Bots were forged from everything you might see in arms reach of your local hackerspace: pvc pipe, acrylic sheets, and a few 3D-printed components. On the menu of shredded plastic we have everything from classic wedges and spinners to a giant spinning rubber pterodactyl strapped onto the body of an RC car. (Time is tight, right?)

While 3 pound plastic fighters might not seem devastating, don’t underestimate the LiPo batteries and brushless motors that are running under the hood. These competitors can easily heave each other across the ring. We’ve definitely seen mini Battlebot tournaments before, and we’re thrilled to see them on the rise in everyday places. Better start getting your materials ready. Who knows? Mini Battlebots might be coming to an alley near you too.

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Hacklet 96 – Pi Zero Contest Projects Week 3

The calendar is rolling through the third week of the house that Hackaday and Adafruit built: The Raspberry Pi Zero Contest. We’re nearly at 100 entries! Each project is competing for one of 10 Raspberry Pi Zeros, and one of three $100 gift certificates to The Hackaday Store. This week on The Hacklet, we’re going to take a look at a few more contest entries.

tizen[Phil “RzR” Coval] is trying to Port Tizen to the Raspberry Pi Zero. For those not in the know, Tizen is an open source operating system for everything. Billed as a go-to OS for everything from wearables to tablets to smartphones to in-vehicle entertainment systems, Tizen is managed by the Linux Foundation and a the Tizen Association. While Tizen works on a lot of devices, the Raspberry Pi and Pi 2 are still considered “works in progress”. Folks are having trouble just getting a pre-built binary to run. [Phil] is taking the source and porting it to the limited Pi Zero platform. So far he’s gotten the Yocto-based build to run, and the system starts to boot. Unfortunately, the Pi crashes before the boot is complete. We’re hoping [Phil] keeps at it and gets Tizen up and running on the Pi Zero!

harmNext up is [shlonkin] with Classroom music teaching aid. Guitar Hero has taught a generation of kids to translate flashing lights to playing notes on toy instruments. [Shlonkin] is using similar ideas to teach students how to play real music on a harmonica. The Pi Zero will control a large display model of a harmonica at the front of the classroom. Each hole will light up when that note is to be played. Harmonica’s have two notes per hole. [Shlonkin] worked around this with color. Red LEDs mean blow (exhale), and Blue LEDs mean draw (inhale). The Pi Zero can do plenty more than blink LEDs and play music, so [shlonkin] plans to have the board analyze the notes played by the students. With a bit of software magic, this teaching tool can provide real-time feedback as the students play.

retro[Spencer] is putting the Pi Zero to work as a $5 Graphics Card For Homebrew Z80. The Z80 in this case is RC2014, his DIY retro computer. RC2014 was built as part of the 2014 RetroChallenge. While the computer works, it only has an RS-232 serial port for communication to the outside world. Unless you have a PC running terminal software nearby, the RC2014 isn’t very useful. [Spencer] is fixing that by using the Pi Zero as a front end for his retro battle station. The Pi handles USB keyboard input, translates to serial for the RC2014, and then displays the output via HDMI or the composite video connection. The final design fits into the RC2014 backplane through a custom PCB [Spencer] created with a little help from kicad and OSHPark.

brambleFinally we have [txdo.msk] with 8 Leaf Pi Zero Bramble. At $5 each, people are scrambling to build massively parallel supercomputers using the Raspberry Pi Zero. Sure, these aren’t practical machines, but they are a great way to learn parallel computing fundamentals. It only takes a couple of connectors to get the Pi Zero up and running. However, 8 interconnected boards quickly makes for a messy desk. [Txdo.msk] is designing a 3D printed modular case to hold each of the leaves. The leaves slip into a bramble box which keeps everything from shorting out. [Txdo.msk] has gone through several iterations already. We hope he has enough PLA stocked up to print his final design!

If you want to see more entrants to Hackaday and Adafruit’s Pi Zero contest, check out the submissions list! If you don’t see your project on that list, you don’t have to contact me, just submit it to the Pi Zero Contest! 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 Hackaday.io!

Hacklet 95 – More Pi Zero Contest Entries

We’re well into the second week of the Hackaday and Adafruit ultimate team-up: The Raspberry Pi Zero Contest. The entries have been flying in! As of Thursday evening, we have 70 projects vying for one of 10 Raspberry Pi Zeros, and one of three $100 gift certificates to The Hackaday Store. This week on The Hacklet, we’re going to take a look at a few more contest entries.

blueberryWe start with [Sean Hodgins] and Blueberry Zero – Keep your Pi in your Pocket. [Sean] can’t leave home without his Raspberry Pi Zero. Carrying all the cables, adapters, and accessories required to power up a tiny Linux computer can be a chore though. He’s created a solution to simplify all that with Blueberry Zero. This custom PCB hat contains an HC-05 style Bluetooth module connected to the Pi’s console port. Serial alone doesn’t make for a standalone Pi, so [Sean] added a LiPo battery and charger chip. A switching power supply boosts the 4.2 V LiPo output up to the 5 V required for the Pi. Now when [Sean] just has to hack out some python code, all he needs to do is open a Bluetooth connection from a cell phone, tablet, or computer.

pcpower[Doihaveto] is using his Pi Zero to manage a desktop PC. PC Power allows him to not only turn his computer on or off, but to disconnect the mains power completely. [Doihaveto’s] PC does have Wake On Lan, but he’s run into problems when the system has failed. His Pi provides an extra layer of protection in case things don’t wake up as expected. The board contains two optoisolated connections to a host PC. One is the power switch output, the other is the power LED input. If all else fails, PC Power also can control a solid state relay to completely isolate the computer from mains power. PC Power uses a web interface created with Python using the flask web framework.

pifoldNext up is [tomwsmf] with PiFold. Like [Sean] up above, [tomwsmf] can’t leave home without his Pi Zero. Rather than hacking code though, [tomwsmf] is serving up media. PiFold is a wallet containing a Pi Zero powered server. The Anyfesto software package runs on the Pi, serving up songs and files via WiFi. Audio is also transmitted on 88.1 MHz FM via PiFM. A 2500 mAh battery pack coupled with a boost converter keeps PiFold humming away. When the battery needs a charge, [tomwsmf] can use a small solar panel to top up the battery while staying green.



retrorobotFinally, we have [Fredrik J] with Retrofit Robot. The 1980’s were a golden age of toy robots from Japan. Tomy, Nikko, and a few other companies created devices like Omnibot, which were ahead of their time. [Fredrick] still has his vintage Nikko RC-ROBOT, but it has long since ceased to function. The Pi Zero presents a perfect opportunity to give the little guy a new lease on life. [Fredrik’s] goal is to keep the RC-ROBOT’s original look while giving him new functions. The old DC motors are being replaced with closed loop servos. The servos will be controlled by an Adafruit 16 channel servo driver board. The next step for Retrofit Robot is a big 6000 mAh battery. We can’t wait to see how this one turns out!

If you want to see more entrants to Hackaday and Adafruit’s Pi Zero contest, check out the submissions list! If you don’t see your project on that list, you don’t have to contact me, just submit it to the Pi Zero Contest! 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 Hackaday.io!

Hacklet 94 – Pi Zero Contest Entries

Hackaday and Adafruit have joined forces to present the Raspberry Pi Zero Contest. A great contest is nothing without entries though. This is where the Hackaday.io community is proving once again that they’re the best in the world. The contest is less than a week old, yet as of this Thursday evening, we’re already up to 33 entrants! You should submit your own project ideas now for a chance at one of the many prizes. This week on The Hacklet, we’re going to take a look at a few of these early entrants!

controllerWe start with [usedbytes] and Zero Entertainment System [usedbytes] has crammed an entire emulator into a classic Nintendo Entertainment System control pad thanks to the Raspberry Pi Zero. Zero Entertainment System also has something the original NES couldn’t dream of having: An HDMI output. The emulator uses the popular RetroPie front end. We’re happy to say that [usedbytes] knew that hacking up a real Nintendo controller would be sacrilegious, so they grabbed a low-cost USB clone from the far East. A bit of creative parts-stuffing and point-to-point wiring later, ZES was ready to meet the world!

wsprNext up is [Jenny List] with The Australia Project. [Jenny] is a hacker from Europe. She’s hoping to use a Pi Zero to talk to Australia. “Talk” may be pushing it a bit though. The Australia Project will use the Weak Signal Propagation Reporter (WSPR) network to transmit RF straight out of the Pi’s GPIO ports. All that is required is a good filter, an antenna, and a balun. The filter in this case is a 7-pole Chebyshev low-pass filter. The filter keeps the Pi’s harmonic filled square waves from messing up every band from DC to light. [Jenny] normally sells these filters as a kit, but she’s made a special version specifically for the Pi Zero.

tote0[Radomir Dopieralski] has brought his signature walking robots to the Pi Zero world with Tote Zero. Tote Zero is a quadruped walking robot built mainly from 9 gram servos. [Radomir’s] custom tote board interfaces the servos to the Pi Zero itself. The Pi Zero opens all sorts of doors for sensors, vision, and advanced processing. The Arduino board on the original Tote would have been hard pressed to pull that off. Tote is programmed in Python, which will make the code quick and easy to develop. Tote Zero just took its first steps a few days ago, so follow along as a new robot is born!


ethernetpoFinally we have [julien] with PoEPi: Pi Zero Power over Ethernet with PHY. The Raspberry Pi Zero is so tiny, that it’s easy to forget it needs a fair amount of power to run. [Julien] is giving us a way to connect our Pi to a network while ditching the USB power supply using Power Over Ethernet (PoE). PoE has been powering devices like IP cameras for years now. It’s become a standard way of transmitting power and data. For the Ethernet physical interface, [Julien] is using Microchip’s ENC28J60, which has a handy SPI interface. Linux already has drivers in place for the device, so it’s a slam dunk. The “power” part of this system comes with the help of an LTC4267 PoE interface chip, which has a built-in switching regulator.

If you want to see more entrants to Hackaday and Adafruit’s Pi Zero contest, check out the submissions list! If you don’t see your project on that list, you don’t even have to contact me, just submit it to the Pi Zero Contest! 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 Hackaday.io!

Warbots: Is it Already Too Late?

In 1971, a non-profit formed that holds the World Economic Forum each year. The Forum claims it “Engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” This year, the Forum hosted a session: What If: Robots Go To War? Participants included a computer science professor, an electrical engineering professor, the chairman of BAE, a senior fellow at the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, and a Time magazine editor.

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