Parkinson’s Spoon Uses Control Theory For Good

When we first saw [Barqunics’] design for a self-stabilizing spoon for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, we wondered how well something like that could work. But take a look at the video below and you’ll see this does a fine job of responding to the user’s hand movements and keeping the spoon perfectly level through a wide range of motion.

There’s at least one commercial product that attempts to stabilize a spoon in the same way so that people suffering from that affliction can retain a measure of independence. This shows that you don’t need injection molding and factory made boards to prove the concept. An MPU6050 provides sensor information and two servo motors control the spoon using PID control.

PID — short for proportional, integral, derivative — is a way to adjust something to a desired point. For example, consider trying to heat a cup of water to 95 °C. If you simply turn the heater on full blast until you get to 95 °C, the water will actually get hotter because you’ll overshoot. Using PID, the amount of heating provided will depend on how far off you are now (proportional), how far off you’ve been over the long term (integral), and how much change you’ve effected recently (derivative). The same algorithm works for spoon-balancing and many other types of controls.

This isn’t the first bootstrapped assistive spoon project we’ve seen. We even looked at the commercial version, awhile back.

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Exhaust Fan-Equipped Reflow Oven Cools PCBs Quickly

With reflow soldering, sometimes close is good enough. At the end of the day, the home gamer really just needs a hot plate or an old toaster oven and a calibrated Mark I eyeball to get decent results. This exhaust fan-equipped reflow oven is an attempt to take control of what’s perhaps the more challenging part of the reflow thermal cycle — the cool down.

No fan of the seat-of-the-pants school of reflow soldering, [Nabil Tewolde] started with a cast-off toaster oven for what was hoped to be a more precise reflow oven. The requisite temperature sensors and solid-state relays were added, along with a Raspberry Pi Zero W and a small LCD display. Adding the cooling assist started by cutting a gaping hole cut in the rear wall of the oven, which was then filled with a short stretch of HVAC duct and a stepper-controlled damper. The far end of the duct was fitted with a PC cooling fan; while it seems sketchy to use a plastic fan to eject hot air from the oven, [Nabil] says the exhaust isn’t really that hot by the time it gets to the fan. At the end of the reflow phase of the thermal profile, the damper opens and the fan kicks on, rapidly cooling the oven’s interior.

Unfortunately, [Nabil] still needs to crack open the oven door to get decent airflow; seems like another damper to admit fresh air would help with that. That would complicate things a bit, but it still wouldn’t be as over-the-top as some reflow builds we’ve seen. Then again, that calibrated eyeball thing can work pretty well too, even without a toaster oven.

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Autonomous Multi-Task Performing Robot

[Ruchir] has been pretty into robotics for a while now and has always been amused by the ever-popular obstacle avoiding robot, but wanted something that could do more. So, like any good hacker, he decided to build something himself.

He wanted to incorporate all the popular beginner robot capabilities into a single invention. His robot can follow a line, detect an obstacle, and retrieve an object without switching between modes. It can even follow another robot, which is pretty neat.

His robot has a lot of the hardware you would expect. It uses a Raspberry Pi for all the heavy image processing, has optical sensors for line following and obstacle avoidance, and includes a speaker for audio feedback. What’s especially cool is the impressive interface, called the Regbot GUI, that [Ruchir] is using with his robot. According to the Wiki page, the Regbot GUI appears to accompany an educational robotics platform developed by Professor Jens Christian Andersen of the Technical University of Denmark for teaching controls to engineering students. [Ruchir] was able to adapt the GUI to his particular bot no problem.

Using the Regbot GUI, [Ruchir] can monitor all the robot’s sensor data in real-time (accelerometer, gyroscope, distance sensor, servo, encoder, etc.), dynamically adjust its calibration settings if needed, or even provide a universal killswitch in case the unthinkable happens. We’d say it’s definitely worth a look before you embark on your next robotics project.

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Measuring The Time Is A Breeze With This Air Flow Clock

If you’ve ever had surgery, and you’re over a certain age, chances are good you’re familiar with the dreaded incentive spirometer. It’s a little plastic device with one or more columns, each of which has a plastic ball in it. The idea is to blow into the thing to float the balls, to endure that your lungs stay in good shape and reduce the chance of pneumonia. This unique air-powered clock reminds us a little of that device, without all the pain.

Like a spirometer, [Nir Tasher]’s clock has three calibrated tubes, each big enough to hold a foam ball loosely. At the bottom of each tube is a blower whose motor is under PWM control. A laser rangefinder sits below each ball and measures its height; the measurement is used by a PID loop to control the speed of each fan and thus the height of each ball. The video below shows that the balls are actually pretty steady, making the clock easy to read. It doesn’t, however, reveal what the clock sounds like; we’re going to go out on a limb here and guess that it’s pretty noisy. Still, we think it’s a fantastic way to keep time, and unique in the extreme.

[Nir]’s Air Flow clock is an early entry in the 2020 Hackaday Prize, the greatest hardware design contest on Earth. Everyone should enter something, or at least check out the cool things people are coming up with. It’s still early in the process, but there are so many neat projects already. What are you waiting for?

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Put The Power Of PCR In Your Pocket With This Open-Source Thermal Cycler

When the first thermal cyclers for the polymerase chain reaction came out in the 1980s, they were as expensive as a market driven by grant money could make them. Things haven’t got much better over the years, largely shutting STEM classes and biohackers out of the PCR market. That may be about to change, though, if the €99.00 PocketPCR thermal cycler takes hold.

PCR amplifies DNA in a three-step process: denaturation, which melts double-stranded DNA into single strands; annealing, which lets small pieces of primer DNA bind to either side of the region of interest; and elongation, where the enzyme DNA polymerase zips along the single strands starting at the primer to replicate the DNA. The cycle repeats and copies of the original DNA accumulate exponentially. Like any thermal cycler, [Urs Gaudenz]’s PocketPCR automates those temperature shifts, using a combination of PCB-mounted heating elements and a cooling fan. The coils rapidly heat a reaction block up to the 99°C denaturation temperature, the fan brings that down to the 68°C needed for annealing, and then the temperature ramps back up to 72°C  for elongation with thermostable DNA polymerase. PID loops keep the reaction temperature precisely controlled. The whole thing is, as the name suggests, small enough to fit in a pocket, and can either be purchased in kit form or scratch-built from the build files on GitHub.

We applaud [Urs]’ efforts to get the power of PCR into the hands of citizen scientists. Quick and dirty thermal cyclers are one thing, but Pocket PCR has a great fit and finish that makes it more accessible.

Thanks to [Abe Tusk] for the tip.

2D-Platform Seeks Balance With A Touch Screen

It’s the [Bruce Land]-iest season of all, when the Cornell professor submits the projects his microcontroller class students have been working on all semester. Imagination does not seem to be in short supply with these students, and we always look forward to these tips this time of year.

[Greg] and [Sam]’s touch-screen two-dimensional ball balancer is a good example of what [Land]’s students turn out. The resistive touch screen is supported by a 3D-printed gimballed platform and tilted in two axes by hobby servos. [Greg] and [Sam] chose to read the voltage outputs from the touch screen directly using the ADC on a PIC32, toggling between the two axes at 2 kHz. Two PID control loops were implemented to keep the ball as centered as possible on the platform, and the video below shows that there’s still some loop tuning to do. But given the positional inaccuracies of hobby servos and the compliance in the gimbal, we’re impressed that they were able to keep the system under control at all.

Of course we’ve seen ball-balancers before, but most of them have closed the loop using either cameras or microphones. Seeing direct sensing on the platform like this is a nice change of pace. Continue reading “2D-Platform Seeks Balance With A Touch Screen”

Long Live Jibo, Our Adorable Robot Companion

Jibo, the adorable robot made by Jibo, Inc., was getting phased out, but that didn’t stop [Guilherme Martins] from using his robot companion for one last hack.

When he found out that the company would be terminating production of new Jibos and shutting down their servers, he wanted to replace the brain of the robot so that it would continue to live on even after all of its software had become deprecated. By the time the project started, the SDK downloads had already been removed the from developer’s site, so they looked at other options for controlling Jibo.

The first challenge was to not break the form factor in order to disassemble Jibo. They only managed to remove the battery from the bottom, realizing that the glass frame held the brain room. From within the robot, they were able to find the endless rotation joint for the head and the heart of the electronics. Jibo uses a DC motor, encoder, and IR sensor at each of three distinct levels to detect reference points.

They decided to use Phidgets modules to interface with these devices. While the DC motor controller handles 2A and has an encoder port, the Phidgets are able to provide software with the encoder and PID built-in. The 4x Digital Input Module was used for detecting the IR switch and connecting the modules to the computer.

[Martins] decided to use LattePanda, a hackable Windows 10 development board, for the brain of the new Jibo. The board was luckily able to fit inside the compartment for Jibo, but since it requires more power the unit is powered with 12V regulated to 5V in order to have less current passing through the wires. The DC motors, meanwhile, run at 12V and the IR switches and encoders at 5V.

A program developed in Unity3D plays the eye animations, and a C# program interfaces with the Phidgets. The final configuration was to fit Jibo onto a robotic arm to augment its behaviors. We previously wrote about Toppi, the robotic arm artist, that was used as the base for Jibo’s new home.

You can check out the result in the video below.

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