OpenDog: Adding Force Sensitive Feet

[James Bruton] OpenDog remains one of the most impressive home-built robotics projects we’ve seen here on Hackaday, and it’s a gift that just keeps on giving. This time he’s working on adding force sensing capabilities to OpenDog’s legs to allow for more dynamic movement control.

The actuators in the legs are three-phase outrunner motors that drive ball-screws via a belt. This configuration is non-backdrivable, meaning the legs cannot be moved when an external force is, which could lead to mechanical failures. He as tested other backdrivable leg configurations with other robots, but did not want to rebuild OpenDog completely. The solution [James] went with is a redesigned foot with an inbuilt switch, to confirm that the foot is touching the ground, and a load cell attached in the middle of the bottom leg segment. The load cell is bolted rigidly onto the leg segment, which allows it to sense when the leg is carrying load, without damaging the load cell itself.

Unfortunately all the serial ports on OpenDog’s main Teensy 3.6 controller are already used, so he converted the signal from the load cell to PWM, to allow it to be read by a normal GPIO pin. This works well in isolation, but when [James] switches on the motors, the PWM signal from the load sensor gets flooded by interference, making it unreadable. To solve this problem, he wants to implement a CAN bus, which will allow for more inputs and outputs and hopefully solve the interference problem. However, [James] has no experience with the CAN protocol, so learning to use it is going to be a project on its own.

OpenDog is turning into a very lengthy, time-consuming project, [James] says that the lessons learned from it have been invaluable for a number of other projects. This is something to keep in mind with everything we tackle. Choose projects were the experience gained and/or relationships developed are worth it on their own, even when the project fails in a conventional sense. This way you can never really lose.

FitSocket Is A Portal To Better Prostheses

Traditionally, sockets for prostheses are created by making a plaster cast of the limb being fitted, and are then sculpted in carbon fiber. It’s an expensive and time-consuming process, and what is supposed to be a customized socket often turns out to be an uncomfortable disappointment. Though prosthetists design these sockets specifically to take pressure off of the more rigid areas of tissue, this usually ends up putting more pressure on the softer areas, causing pain and discomfort.

An MIT team led by [Arthur Preton] wants to make prosthesis sockets more comfortable and better customized. They created FitSocket, a machine that assesses the rigidity of limb tissue. You can see it in motion after the break.

FitSocket is essentially a ring of 14 actuators that gently prod the limb and test how much pressure it takes to push in the tissue. By repeating this process over the entire limb, [Preton] can create a map that shows the varying degrees of stiffness or softness in the tissue.

We love to see advancements in prostheses. Here’s an electronic skin that brings feeling to artificial fingertips.

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Turn Your Teddy Bear Into A Robot With Yale’s “Robotic Skin”

Despite what we may have seen in the new Winnie the Pooh movie, our cherished plush toys don’t usually come to life. But if that’s the goal, we have ways of making it happen. Like these “robotic skins” from Yale University.

Each module is a collection of sensors and actuators mounted on a flexible substrate, which is then installed onto a flexible object serving as structure. In a simple implementation, the mechanical bits are sewn onto a piece of fabric and tied with zippers onto a piece of foam. The demonstration video (embedded below the break) runs through several more variations of the theme. From making a foam tube (“pool noodle”) crawl like a snake to making a horse toy’s legs move.

There’s a serious motivation behind these entertaining prototypes. NASA is always looking to reduce weight that must be launched into space, and this was born from the idea of modular robotics. Instead of actuators and sensors embedded in a single robot performing a specific function, these robotic skins can be moved around to different robot bodies to perform a variety of tasks. Such flexibility can open up more capabilities while occupying less weight on the rocket.

This idea is still early in development and the current level prototypes look like something most of us can replicate and improve upon for use in our projects. We’ve even got a controller for those pneumatics. With some more development, it may yet place among the ranks of esoteric actuators.

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Hold The Salt And Butter, This Popcorn Is For A Robot

Popcorn! Light and fluffy, it is a fantastically flexible snack. We can have them plain, create a savory snack with some salt and butter, or cover with caramel if you have a sweet tooth. Now Cornell University showed us one more way to enjoy popcorn: use their popping action as the mechanical force in a robot actuator.

It may be unorthodox at first glance, but it makes a lot of sense. We pop corn by heating its water until it turns into steam triggering a rapid expansion of volume. It is not terribly different from our engines burning an air-fuel mixture to create a rapid expansion of volume. Or using heat energy to boil water and trigger its expansion to steam. So a kernel of popcorn can be used as a small, simple, self-contained engine for turning heat energy into mechanical power.

Obviously it would be a single-use mechanism, but that’s perfectly palatable for the right niche. Single-use is a lot easier to swallow when popcorn is so cheap, and also biodegradable resulting in minimal residue. The research paper demonstrated three recipes to harness popping corn’s mechanical energy, but that is hardly an exhaustive list. There’s an open invitation to brainstorm other creations to add to the menu.

Of course, if you prefer candy over popcorn, you could build a robot actuator out of licorice instead.

Either way, the robot uprising will be delicious.

[via IEEE Spectrum]

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Keeping Humanity Safe From Robots At Disney

Almost every big corporation has a research and development organization, so it came as no surprise when we found a tip about Disney Research in the Hackaday Tip Line. And that the project in question turned out to involve human-safe haptic telepresence robots makes perfect sense, especially when your business is keeping the Happiest Place on Earth running smoothly.

That Disney wants to make sure their Animatronics are safe is good news, but the Disney project is about more than keeping guests healthy. The video after the break and the accompanying paper (PDF link) describe a telepresence robot with a unique hydrostatic transmission coupling it to the operator. The actuators are based on a rolling-diaphragm design that limits hydraulic pressure. In a human-safe system that’s exactly what you want.

The system is a hybrid hydraulic-pneumatic design; two actuators, one powered by water pressure and the other with air, oppose each other in each joint. The air-charged actuators behave like a mass-efficient spring that preloads the hydraulic actuator. This increases safety by allowing the system to be de-energized instantly by venting the air lines. What’s more, the whole system presents very low mechanical impedance, allowing haptic feedback to the operator through the system fluid. This provides enough sensitivity to handle an egg, thread a needle — or even bop a kid’s face with impunity.

There are some great ideas here for robotics hackers, and you’ve got to admire the engineering that went into these actuators. For more research from the House of Mouse, check out this slightly creepy touch-sensitive smart watch, or this air-cannon haptic feedback generator.

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