Building a robot that can do anything well is a tough challenge. Building one that can stand up to another robot trying to violently put it out of commission is an even harder task. But it makes for some entertaining television! It is this combination that thrust a few creative robot building teams into the world of Robot Wars.
SMIDSY, short for the insubstantial excuse heard by many a motorcyclist “Sorry Mate, I Didn’t See You”, is a robot that competed in several seasons of the British incarnation of the Robot Wars TV show. It wasn’t the most successful of machines because its weapons were slightly weedy compared to some of the competition, but it was one of the more robust and reliable platforms on the circuit at the time thanks to its combination of simple uncomplicated construction and extremely good design. I had the pleasure of being on the team that built and competed with SMIDSY and carry from it some of the more found memories from that decade.
A few weeks ago I learned that a friend from that period in my life had died following an illness. I hadn’t seen [Mik] for a few years as our lives had drifted apart, but if we were to turn back the clock nearly a couple of decades you would find us and about twenty other fellow members of the Ixion British motorcyclist’s mailing list hard at work building a Robot Wars robot.
The hard work and determination make this a great story. But even more so it’s fun to look back on the state of the art of the time and see some clever workarounds in a time when robot building was just starting to be approachable by the average engineer.
Zip ties, Ty-Raps, cable ties; call them what you will, but it’s hard to imagine doing without these ubiquitous and useful devices. Along with duct tape and hot glue, they’re part of the triumvirate of fasteners used to solve nasty problems quickly and cheaply. They’re next up on the list of mechanisms we find fascinating, and as it turns out, there’s more to these devices than meets the eye.
Even before the Industrial Revolution, gears of one kind or another have been put to work both for and against us. From ancient water wheels and windmills that ground grain and pounded flax, to the drive trains that power machines of war from siege engines to main battle tanks, gears have been essential parts of almost every mechanical device ever built. The next installment of our series on Mechanisms will take a brief look at gears and their applications.
Hackaday readers are well aware of the problems caused by materials left exposed to the environment over time, whether that be oxidized contact pads on circuit boards or plastics made brittle from long exposure to the sun’s UV rays.
Now consider the perils faced by materials on the International Space Station (ISS), launched beginning in 1998 and planned to be used until 2028. That’s a total of 30 years in an environment of unfiltered sunlight, extreme temperatures, micrometeoroids, and even problems caused by oxygen. What about the exposure faced by the newly launched Tesla Roadster, an entirely non-space hardened vehicle on a million-year orbit around the sun? How are the materials which make up the ISS and the Roadster affected by the harsh space environment?
Fortunately, we’ve been doing experiments since the 1970s in Earth orbit which can give us answers. The missions and experiments themselves are as interesting as the results so let’s look at how we put materials into orbit to be tested against the rigors of space.
New York City’s L train carries about 400,000 passengers a day, linking Manhattan and Brooklyn and bringing passengers along 14th Street, under the East River, and through the neighborhoods of Williamsburg, Bushwick, Ridgewood, Brownsville, and Canarsie. About 225,000 of these passengers pass through the Canarsie Tunnel, a two-tube cast iron rail tunnel built below the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn in 1924. Like many other New York City road and subway tunnels, the Canarsie Tunnel was badly damaged when Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge inundated the tubes with million of gallons of salt water. Six years later, the impending closure of the tunnel is motivating New Yorkers to develop their own ambitious infrastructure ideas.
Every once in a while, you get your hands on a cool piece of hardware, and of course, it’s your first instinct to open it up and see how it works, right? Maybe see if it can be coaxed into doing just a little bit more than it says on the box? And so it was last Wednesday, when I was at the Embedded World trade fair, and stumbled on a cool touch display floating apparently in mid-air.
The display itself was a sort of focused Pepper’s Ghost illusion, reflected off of an expensive mirror made by Aska3D. I don’t know much more — I didn’t get to bring home one of the fancy glass plates — but it looked pretty good. But this display was interactive: you could touch the floating 2D projection as if it were actually there, and the software would respond. What was doing the touch response in mid-air? I’m a sucker for sensors, so I started asking questions and left with a small box of prototype Neonode zForce AIR sensor sticks to take apart.
The zForce sensors are essentially an array of IR lasers and photodiodes with some lenses that limit their field of view. The IR light hits your finger and bounces back to the photodiodes on the bar. Because the photodiodes have a limited angle over which they respond, they can be used to triangulate the distance of the finger above the display. Scanning quickly among the IR lasers and noting which photodiodes receive a reflection can locate a few fingertips in a 2D space, which explained the interactive part of the floating display. With one of these sensors, you can add a 2D touch surface to anything. It’s like an invisible laser harp that can also sense distance.
The intended purpose is fingertip detection, and that’s what the firmware is good at, but it must also be the case that it could detect the shape of arbitrary (concave) objects within its range, and that was going to be my hack. I got 90% of the way there in one night, thanks to affordable tools and free software that every hardware hacker should have in their toolbox. So read on for the unfortunate destruction of nice hardware, a tour through some useful command-line hardware-hacking tools, and gratuitous creation of animations from sniffed SPI-like data pulled off of some test points.
Just about everywhere you go, there’s a reed switch nearby that’s quietly going about its work. Reed switches are so ubiquitous that you’re probably never more than a few feet away from one at any given time, especially at home or in the car. You might have them on your doors and windows as part of a burglar alarm system. They keep your washing machine from running when the lid is open, and they put your laptop to sleep when you close the lid. They know if the car has enough brake fluid and whether or not your seat belt is fastened.
Reed switches are interesting devices with a ton of domestic and industrial applications. We call them switches, but they’re also sensors. In fact, they only do the work of a switch while they can sense a magnetic field. They are capable of switching AC or DC at low and high voltages, but they don’t need electricity to work. Since they’re sealed in glass, they are impervious to dirt, dust, corrosion, temperature swings, and explosive environments. They’re cheap, they’re durable, and in low-current applications they can last for about a billion actuations.