Hackaday Links: June 21, 2020

When Lego introduced its Mindstorms line in 1998, in a lot of ways it was like a gateway drug into the world of STEM, even though that term wouldn’t be invented for another couple of years. Children and the obsolete children who begat them drooled over the possibility of combining the Lego building system with motors, sensors, and a real computer that was far and away beyond anything that was available at the time. Mindstorms became hugely influential in the early maker scene and was slowly but steadily updated over the decades, culminating with the recently released Mindstorms Robot Inventor kit. In the thirteen years since the last release, a lot has changed in the market, and we Hackaday scribes had a discussion this week about the continued relevancy of Mindstorms in a time when cheap servos, microcontrollers, and a bewildering array of sensors can be had for pennies. We wonder what the readers think: is a kit that burns a $360 hole in your pocket still worth it? Sound off below.

Are you looking for a way to productively fill some spare time? Plenty of people are these days, and Hackaday has quite a deal for them: Hackaday U! This series of online courses will get you up to speed on a wide range of topics, starting tomorrow with Matthew Alt’s course on reverse engineering with Ghidra. Classes meet online once a week for four weeks, with virtual office hours to help you master the topic. Beside reverse engineering, you can learn about KiCad and FreeCad, quantum computing, real-time processing of audio and sensor data, and later in the year, basic circuit theory. We’ve got other courses lined up to fill out the year, but don’t wait — sign up now! Oh, and the best part? It’s on a pay-as-you-wish basis, with all proceeds going to charity. Get smarter, help others while doing it — what’s not to love about that?

Speaking of virtual learning, the GNU Radio Conference will be moving online for its 10th anniversary year. And while it’s good news that this and other cons have been able to retool and continue their mission of educating and growing this community, it’s still a bummer that there won’t be a chance to network and participate in all the fun events such cons offer. Or perhaps there will — it seems like the Wireless Capture the Flag (CTF) event is still going to happen. Billed as “an immersive plot-driven … competition featuring the GNU Radio framework and many other open-source tools, satellite communications, cryptography, and surreal global landscapes,” it certainly sounds like fun. We’d love to find out exactly how this CTF competition will work.

Everyone needs a way to unwind, and sometimes the best way to do that is to throw yourself into a project of such intricacy and delicate work that you’re forced into an almost meditative state by it. We’ve seen beautiful examples of that with the wonderful circuit sculptures of Mohit Bhoite and Jiří Praus, but here’s something that almost defies belief: a painstakingly detailed diorama of a vintage IBM data center. Created by the aptly named [minatua], each piece of this sculpture is a work of art in its own right and represents the “big iron” of the 1400 series of computers from the early 1960s. The level of detail is phenomenal — the green and white striped fanfold paper coming out of the 1403 line printer has tiny characters printed on it, and on the 729 tape drives, the reels spin and the lights flash. It’s incredible, all the more so because there don’t appear to be any 3D-printed parts — everything is scratch built from raw materials. Check it out.

As you can imagine, the Hackaday tip line attracts a fair number of ideas of the scientifically marginal variety. Although we’re not too fond of spammers, we try to be kind to everyone who bothers to send us a tip, but with a skeptical eye when terms like “free energy” come across. Still, we found this video touting to Nikola Tesla’s free energy secrets worth passing on. It’s just how we roll.

And finally, aside from being the first full day of summer, today is Father’s Day. We just want to say Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, both those that inspired and guided us as we were growing up, and those who are currently passing the torch to the next generation. It’s not easy to do sometimes, but tackling a project with a kid is immensely important work, and hats off to all the dads who make the time for it.

 

FOSSCON 2018: Where Open Source And LEGO Collide

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this, but hackers and makers absolutely love LEGO. We think you’d be hard pressed to find a Hackaday reader, young or old, that hasn’t spent some quality time with the little plastic bricks from Billund, Denmark. So it follows that there’s a considerable community of individuals who leverage their better than average technical prowess to utilize LEGO in new and unique ways. But the activities and history of these LEGO hackers is not exactly common knowledge to those who aren’t heavily vested in the hobby.

During the recent FOSSCON 2018 in Philadelphia, Daniel Pikora gave attendees a comprehensive look at the intersection of open source development and the world’s most popular brand of construction toys. A software developer with a penchant for open source code by trade, he’s also an avid member of what’s known as the Adult Fan of LEGO (AFOL) community who’s exhibited his creations at shows across the United States and Canada. Such a unique perspective, with a foot in both the FOSS and LEGO camps, makes Daniel an ideal tour guide for this particular microcosm of toys and tech.

In a whirlwind presentation that took attendees through 49 slides in about as many minutes, Daniel covered LEGO’s beginnings in the 1930s to the rise of 3D printed custom bricks, and everything in between. Some of the engineering-centric product lines, such as Technic and Mindstorms, were already fairly well known to the types of folk who spent a beautiful Saturday in Philadelphia at an open source conference. But Daniel’s deep-dive into the long history of open source LEGO projects brought to light the work of so many dedicated developers that everyone walked away with a newfound respect for the amount of work the AFOL community has put into elevating LEGO from a child’s toy to a legitimate tool. Join me below for a look at the particulars of that deep dive.

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Freakishly Agile Crawler Rocks All-LEGO Mechanum Wheels

Mechanum wheels are great, but you have to have them perfectly alined or they come across a little clunky, giving your robot a herky-jerky movement. Robotics educator and supreme LEGO builder [Yoshihito Isogawa] built a mechanum-wheeled rover that has the angles right: each wheel consists of 12 smaller rubber tires angled at 45 degrees. The key to the project is Part Number 85940, accurately if unsexily named “double Ø4.85 hole w/ Ø3.2 shaft”. It consists of a double technic hole with a shaft projecting in a 45-degree angle.

Unlike his omni-roller project with 3 large wheels and the mechanum tank treads he built for another project, this one features the gold standard of mechanum movement: creepy agility. He also did a version with 9 side rollers per wheel, and it was nearly as stable.

Hackaday loves [Yoshihito]’s great creations, which are as beautiful and elegant as they are functional. His all-LEGO centrifugal pump and his spirograph machine make expert use of parts to make the builds as simple as possible.

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Mechanical Marvel Trades Courage For Chocolate

When we see what [Jason Allemann] does with LEGO, we wonder why more one-offs aren’t made this way. This time he’s made a Halloween mechanical marvel that will surely scare more kids than anything else they’ll encounter on their rounds — so much so that many may even decline the chocolate it dispenses. Who wouldn’t when to get it you have to reach over an animatronic skeleton hand that may grab you while a similarly mechanized spider may lunge onto your hand.

The chocolate dispensing, the hand and the spider are all animated using four motors, a LEGO Mindstorms EV3 brick to control them, and a touch sensor. When a kid presses a pumpkin attached to the touch sensor, the next chocolate candy is lowered by gravity onto a conveyor belt and carried forward to the awaiting child. That much is automatic. At the discretion of [Jason] and his partner [Kristal], using an infrared remote control and sensor, they can activate the skeleton hand and the lunging spider at just the right moment. We’re just not sure who they’ll choose to spare. It is Halloween after all, and being scared is part of the fun, so maybe spare no one? Check out the video below and tell us if you’d prefer just the treat, or both the trick and treat.

We do have to wonder if there’s any project that can’t benefit from LEGO products, even if only at the prototype stage or to help visualize an idea. As a small sample, [Jason]’s also made a remote-controlled monowheel and an actual working printer along with a Morse key telegraph machine to send it something to print.

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Mindstorms Soccer Robot Inspired By Real Soccer Robot

[Bram], a 17-year-old robot fan from the Nertherlands, had an opportunity to watch a RoboCup soccer match played by autonomous robots, and was inspired to create his own Mindstorms version of the robot for a school project.

The robot he created is around 80 cm in diameter and is controlled by four daisy-chained EV bricks. There are nine large motors for controlling the wheels, two more large motors for grabbing the ball, and two medium motors for the ball-shooting mechanism. It uses a Pixycam for ball detection, and it can identify and move toward the ball so long as it’s within 2.5 m. A gyro sensor determines the robot’s rotational direction.

Our favorite detail of the robot is its giant omni wheels, constructed out of LEGO elements. Each one consists of sixteen Mindstorms-standard wheels arranged in a circle, with an offset double row of rollers to give the same angled effect as a Mechanum wheel’s rollers.

This story has even geekier roots. [Bram]’s robot was based off of the Turtle, a soccer-playing robot used to teach programming to college students. Like [Bram]’s creation, they also have omni wheels, and see with a Kinect as well as a 360-degree camera up top that uses a parabolic mirror to keep an eye on its surroundings. The Turtle uses a compass sensor to distinguish its goal from the opposing team’s goal.

We’ve covered soccer bots in the past, watch a soccer-playing robot score on a human goalie.
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Monster Mindstorms Delta Bot Delicately Picks Candy

A group of embedded developers from Sioux Embedded Systems in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, wanted to get experience working on Microsoft .Net. To make it fun they made it their project to produce a LEGO train with visitors at LEGO World, the official LEGO convention in the Netherlands. The team developed an application in C# to fully automate the train, with Mindstorms NXT and EV3 bricks as well as LEGO Power Functions motors controlling everything.

The train project carries a simple premise: the visitor chooses one of four colors, and the train goes and picks up a piece of simulated candy with the matching color. Called Sioux.net on Track, the project has produced a new train every year since 2012 with improvement goals in place to add features with every version. Ironically, the least interesting part of the setup is the actual train and track. The team’s creativity comes to the fore in two areas of the project: the method by which the candy color is selected, and the assembly that dispenses the correct color into the train car.

Team member [Hans Odenthal] has built candy-grabbers for various years’ trains. He learned about the ABB FlexPicker and this year decided to build a delta robot for the layout. It consists of huge girders constructed from 5×9 and 5×11 Technic beam frames held together with more Technic beams and hundreds of connector pegs. The three arms each move on a pair of turntables which are geared down to provide as much torque as possible — the fake candy pieces are light, but the arms themselves weigh a lot. [Hans] ended up revamping the gearboxes to up the ratio from 1:5 to 1:25.

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Mindstorms Morse Key Writes To Drawbot

[Jason Allemann] built a Mindstorms Telegraph Machine that packs so many cool details that HaD is about to have a fit.

First off, It’s a drawbot able to write letters, a difficult feat given a lack of native stepper motors and the limited gear options for Mindstorms.  Trying to draw letters with servos typically makes for some ugly letters. And how does the drawbot know what to write? You code them in with Morse code. The second video after the break shows [Jason]’s setup. He has a Mindstorms touch sensor with a LEGO Morse key attached to it. He simply taps on the key and the EV3 Intelligent Brick interprets his dots and dashes and translates them into letters.

Next off, [Jason]’s printer is built using one EV3 set. It’s one thing to build a cool Mindstorms robot with whatever you have in your parts bin, but the gold standard is to make a project that can be built with only one EV3 set. That way, anyone with the set can build the project. Precious few really cool projects can be built with just one set–[David Gilday]’s MindCub3r Rubik’s cube solver comes to mind. Dude, this is another one.

Last off, [Jason] breaks down how to build it, providing full LDraw building steps and EV3 code on his site. Even better, he shows how to supersize the project by adding a second EV3 brick, which can connect to the drawbot’s EV3 brick via bluetooth and serve as a standalone CW key. He shows off this part in the second video.

Icing on the cake, [Jason] even built a Morse reference book, done appropriately in 100% LEGO.

Hackaday loves innovative LEGO projects, like this game-playing robot and this LEGO exoskeleton.

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