OpenLH: Automating Biology for Everyone

When we took a biology lab, you had to use a mouth pipette to transfer liquids around. That always seemed odd to use your mouth to pick up something that could be dangerous. It’s also not very efficient. A modern lab will use a liquid handling robot, but these aren’t exactly cheap. Sometimes these are called pipettors and even a used one on eBay will set you back an average of $1,000 — and many of them much more than that. Now there’s an open source alternative, OpenLH, that can be built for under $1,000 that leverages an open source robot arm. You can find a video about the system below.

The robot arm, a uArm Swift Pro, is the bulk of the cost.  The Pro can also operate as a 3D printer or a laser engraver with a little work. In fact, we wondered if you could use the arm to make a 3D printer and then print the parts you need to convert it to a liquid handler. Seems like it should work.

Continue reading “OpenLH: Automating Biology for Everyone”

Kniwwelino Is An ESP8266 Micro:Bit

Kniwwelino is the latest in a line of micro:bit-inspired projects that we’ve seen, but this one comes with a twist: it uses an ESP8266 and WiFi at the core instead of the nR51 ARM/BTLE chip. That means that students can connect via laptop, cellphone, or anything else that can get onto a network.

That’s not the only tradeoff, though. In order to get the price down, the Kniwwelino drops the accelerometer/magnetometer of the micro:bit for a programmable RGB LED. With fewer pins to break out, the Kniwwelino is able to ditch the love-it-or-hate-it card-edge connector of the micro:bit as well. In fact, with all these changes, it’s hard to call this a micro:bit clone at all — it’s more like a super-blinky ESP8266 development kit.

So what have they got left in common? The iconic 5×5 LED matrix in the center, and a Blockly visual programming dialect dedicated to the device. Based on the ESP8266, the Kniwwelino naturally also has an Arduino dialect that students can “graduate” to when they’re tired of moving around colored blobs, and of course you could flash the chip with anything else that runs on an ESP8266.

We don’t have one in our hands, but we like the idea. An RGB LED is a lot of fun on Day One, and the fact that the Kniwwelino fits so neatly into existing bodies of code makes the transition from novice to intermediate programmer a lot easier. These things are personal preference, but WiFi beats Bluetooth LE in our book, for sheer ubiquity and interoperability. Finally, the Kniwwelino comes in at about half the manufacturing cost of a micro:bit, which makes it viable in schools without large manufacturer subsidies. They’re estimating $5 per unit. (Retail is higher.) On the other hand, the Kniwwelino is going to use more juice than its ARM-based competitor, and doesn’t have an accelerometer.

Kniwwelino is apparently derived from a luxembourgish word “kniwweln” that apparently means to craft something. The German Calliope Mini is named after Zeus’ daughter, the programmer’s muse. We’re stoked to see so many cute dev boards getting into the hands of students, no matter what you call them.

Open Robots with Open Roberta

Kids, and Hackaday editors, love robots! The Open Roberta project (OR) takes advantage of this to teach kids about programming. And while the main focus is building a robot programming language that works for teaching grade-school and high-school kids, it’s also a part of a large open source robotics ecosystem that brings a lot more to the table than you might think. We talked with some folks at Google, one of the projects’ sponsors, about where the project is and where it’s going.

csm_Roberta_9e1215fc57Building a robot can be very simple — assembling pre-configured parts or building something small, quick, and cute — or it can be an endeavour that takes years of sweat and tears. Either way, the skills involved in building the ‘bot aren’t necessarily the same as those it takes to program the firmware that drives it, and then eventually the higher-level software that makes it functional and easy to drive.

OR, as an educational project, makes it very, very easy for kids to start off programming robots, but it’s expandable as the user gets more experienced. And since everything is open source, it’s part of a whole ecosystem that makes it even more valuable. We think it’s worth a look (along with something significantly more complex like ROS) if you’re playing around with robotics.

System Architecture

openRoberta.dotOpen Roberta is the user-facing middleware in a chain of software and firmware bits that make a robot work in a classroom environment. For the students, everything runs inside a browser. OR provides a webserver, robot programming interface and language, and then converts the output of the students’ programs to something that can be used with the robots’ firmware. The robots that are used in classrooms are mostly based on the Lego Mindstorms EV3 platform because it’s easy to put something together in short order. (But if you don’t have an EV3, don’t despair and read on!)

The emphasis is on ease of entry for the students and the teachers supervising the class. Everything runs in a browser, so there’s nothing to install on the client side. The students connect to a server that directs the robots, communicating with the robots’ own operating system, and uploading the students’ programs.

Continue reading “Open Robots with Open Roberta”