This Robot Swims, Skates, And Crawls

You often hear that art imitates life, but sometimes technology does too. Pliant Energy Systems’ Velox robot resembles an underwater creature more than it does a robot because it uses undulating fins to propel itself, as you can see in the video below.

The video shows the beast skating, but also swimming, and walking. It really does look more like a lifeform than a device. According to the company, the robot has excellent static thrust/watt and is resistant to becoming entangled in plants and other debris.

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Welcome Our New Insect Overlords With Arduino-Powered Ant Bot

Walking robots come in many forms, and each presents their own unique challenges. Bipedal style locomotion is considered particularly difficult to do well, however designs with more legs offer certain advantages. Hexapods offer the possibility of keeping several legs on the ground while others move, providing a useful degree of stability. [How To Mechatronics] developed this ant robot, which is an excellent example of the form.

The hexapod has as the name suggests, six legs, each of which consist of 3 joints. This necessitates 3 servos per leg, for 18 servos total just for locomotion. Further servos are then used to control the abdomen, head, and mandibles. This gives the robot strong ant credentials, above and beyond being simply a 3D printed lookalike.

Brains come courtesy of an Arduino Mega, chosen for its ability to control a large number of servos. A custom PCB is printed as a shield to ease the connection of all the necessary hardware. An HC-05 Bluetooth module is used for communication with an Android app, which controls the ant. The piece de resistance is the ultrasonic sensors in the head, which allow the ant to automatically defend itself against predators that get too close.

It’s an involved build, requiring plenty of 3D printing and over 200 fasteners. Fundamentally though, it’s a fully working and tested hexapod build with full plans available for download, ready to toil in your underground sugar caves.

If your hexapod tastes skew more anime than insectoid, check out this Ghost in the Shell build. Video after the break.

[Thanks to Baldpower for the tip!]

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Soft Rotating Pneumatic Actuators

When we think of pneumatic actuators, we typically consider the standard varieties of pneumatic cylinder, capable of linear motion. These can be referred to as “hard” actuators, made of rigid components and capable of great accuracy and force delivery. However, “soft” actuators have their own complementary abilities – such as being able to handle more delicate tasks and being less likely to injure human operators when used in collaborative operations. The Whitesides Research Group at Harvard University has undertaken significant research in this field, and released a paper covering a novel type of soft pneumatic actuator.

The actuator consists of a series of soft, flexible sealed chambers which surround a wooden dowel in the center. By applying vacuum to these various chambers, the dowel in the center can be pulled into up to eight different positions. It’s a unique concept, and one we can imagine could have applications in various material processing scenarios.

The actuator was built by moulding elastomers around 3D printed components, so this is a build that could theoretically be tackled by the DIYer. The paper goes into great detail to quantify the performance of the actuator, and workshops several potential applications. Testing is done on a fluid delivery and stirring system, and a tethered robotic walker was built. The team uses the term cVAMS – cyclical vacuum actuated machine – to describe the actuator technology.

The world of soft robotics is a hot bed of development, and we look forward to further work in this field. It’s not just Harvard, either – we’ve seen interesting work from Yale and from the Hackaday community too!

 

Buy Or Build An Autonomous Race Car To Take The Checkered Flag

Putting autonomous vehicles on public roads takes major resources beyond most of our means. But we can explore all the same general concepts at a smaller scale by modifying remote-control toy cars, limited only by our individual budgets and skill levels. For those of us whose interest and expertise lie in software, Amazon Web Services just launched AWS DeepRacer: a complete package for exploring machine learning on autonomous vehicles.

At a hardware level, the spec sheet makes it sound like they’ve bolted their AWS DeepLens machine vision computer on an 1/18th scale monster truck chassis. But the hardware is only the tip of the iceberg. The software behind DeepRacer is AWS RoboMaker, a set of tools for applying AWS to robot development. Everything from running digital simulations on AWS to training neural networks on AWS. Don’t know enough about machine learning? No problem! Amazon has also just opened up their internal training curriculum to the world. And to encourage participation, Amazon is running a DeepRacer League with races taking place both digitally online and physically at AWS Summit events around the world. They’ve certainly offered us a full plate at their re:Invent conference this week.

But maybe someone prefers not to use Amazon, or prefer to build their own hardware, or run their own competitions. Fortunately, Amazon is not the only game in town, merely the latest entry in an existing field. The DeepRacer’s League’s predecessor was the Robocar Rally, and the DeepRacer itself follows the Donkey Car. A do-it-yourself autonomous racing platform we first saw at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, Donkey Car has since built up its documentation and software tools including a simulator. The default Donkey Car code is fairly specific to the car, but builders are certainly free to use something more general like the open source Robot Operating System and Gazebo robot simulator. (Which is what AWS RoboMaker builds on.)

So if the goal is to start racing little autonomous cars, we have options to buy pre-built hardware or enjoy the flexibility of building our own. Either way, it’s just another example of why this is a great time to get into neural networks, with or without companies like Amazon devising ways to earn our money. Of course, this isn’t the only Amazon project trying to build a business around an idea explored by an existing open source project. We had just talked about their AWS Ground Station offering which covers similar ground (sky?) as our 2014 Hackaday Prize winner SatNOGS.

Watch The Low-Cost Mechatronics Lab Dispense Candy, Sort Cups

A lot can be done with simple motors and linear motion when they are mated to the right mechanical design and control systems. Teaching these principles is the goal behind the LCMT (Low Cost Mechatronics Trainer) which is intended primarily as an educational tool. The LCMT takes a “learn by doing” approach to teach a variety of principles by creating a system that takes a cup from a hopper, fills it with candy from a dispenser, then sorts the cups based on color, all done by using the proper combinations of relatively simple systems.

The Low Cost Mechatronics Trainer can be built for under $1,000 and is the wonderful work of a team from the Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, USA. The LCMT is clearly no one-off project; there are complete CAD files and build documentation on the site, as well as a complete lab guide for educators.

A demo video of the assembled system is embedded below, with a walkthrough done by [Tim Callinan]. It’s worth a watch to see how cleanly designed the system is, and the visual learners among you may learn a thing or two just by watching the system go through its motions.

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I’m Sorry, Alexander, I’m Afraid I Can’t Do That

Getting people to space is extremely difficult, and while getting robots to space is still pretty challenging, it’s much easier. For that reason, robots and probes have been helping us explore the solar system for decades. Now, though, a robot assistant is on board the ISS to work with the astronauts, and rather than something impersonal like a robot arm, this one has a face, can navigate throughout the ship, and can respond to voice inputs.

The robot is known as CIMON, the Crew Interactive Mobile Companion. Built by Airbus, this interactive helper will fly with German astronaut Alexander Gerst to test the concept of robotic helpers such as this one. It is able to freely move about the cabin and can learn about the space it is in without being specifically programmed for it. It processes voice inputs similarly to a smart phone, but still processes requests on Earth via the IBM Watson AI. This means that it’s not exactly untethered, and future implementations of this technology might need to be more self-contained for missions outside of low Earth orbit.

While the designers have listened to the warnings of 2001 and not given it complete control of the space station, they also learned that it’s helpful to create an interactive robot that isn’t something as off-putting as a single creepy red-eye. This robot can display an interactive face on the screen, as well as use the same screen to show schematics, procedure steps, or anything else the astronauts need. If creepy design is more your style though, you can still have HAL watching you in your house.

Thanks to [Marian] for the tip!

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Move Over Strandbeest, Here’s Strider!

Father-and-son team [Wade] and [Ben Vagle] have developed and extensively tested two great walker designs: TrotBot and the brand-new Strider. But that’s not enough: their website details all of their hard-earned practical experience in simulating and building these critters, on scales ranging from LEGO-Technic to garage-filling (YouTube, embedded below). Their Walker ABC’s page alone is full of tremendously deep insight into the problem, and is a must-read.

These mechanisms were designed to be simpler than the Jansen linkage and smoother than the Klann. In particular, when they’re not taking a stroll down a beach, walker feet often need to clear obstacles, and the [Vagles’] designs lift the toes higher than other designs while also keeping the center of gravity moving at a constant rate and not requiring the feet to slip or slam into the ground. They do some clever things like adding toes to the bots to even out their gaits, and even provide a simulator in Python and in Scratch that’ll help you improve your own designs.

If you wanted a robot that simply moved, you’d use wheels. We like walkers because they look amazing. When we wrote [Wade] saying that one of Trotbot’s gaits looked animal-like, he pointed out that TrotBot got its working name from a horse-style gait (YouTube). Compared to TrotBot, the Strider family don’t have as much personality, but they run smoother, faster, and stronger. There’s already a 3D-printing-friendly TrotBot model out there. Who’s going to work something up for Strider?

How much do we love mechanical walkers? Enough to post about bicycles made with Jansen linkages, remote-controlled toy Strandbeests both with weaponry and without, power-drill-powered walking scooters, and of course basically anything that Theo Jansen is up to.

If a trip to [Wade] and [Ben]’s website doesn’t get you working on a walker project, physical or virtual, we don’t know what will.

(And from the editorial department of deconfusion: the image in the banner is TrotBot, but it was just too cool to not use.)

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