New Part Day: Lynxmotion Smart Servos

Anyone who shops for robotics kits would have come across a few designed by Lynxmotion. They’ve been helping people build robots since 1995, from robot arm kits to hexapod chassis and everything in between. We would expect these people know their motors, so when they launched their own line of servo motors called Lynxmotion Smart Servos (LSS), it is worth spending a bit of time to look over what they offer.

While these new devices have a PWM mode compatible with classic remote control servos, unleashing their full power requires bidirectional communication over a serial bus. We’ve previously given an overview of three serial bus servos already on the market for comparison. A quick look at the $68-$100 price tags listed on Lynxmotion’s parent company RobotShop made it clear they do not intend to compete on price, so what interesting features do these new kids on the block have?

Digging into product documentation found some great details. Acceleration and deceleration rates are adjustable, which can help with smoother robot movement. There’s also an adjustable level of “stiffness” that adds some “give” (compliance) so a robot won’t have to be as stiff as… well, a robot!

Mechanically, the most interesting internal component is the magnetic position sensor. They are far more precise than potentiometers, but more importantly, they allow positioning anywhere within full 360 degrees. Many other serial bus servos are constrained to positions within an arc less than 360 degrees leaving a blind spot.

An interesting quirk of the LSS offerings is that the serial communication protocol uses human-readable text characters, so sending a number 255 means transmitting a three byte string ‘2’, ‘5’, and ‘5’ instead of single byte 0xFF. This would make debugging our custom robot code far easier, at the cost of reduced bandwidth efficiency and loss of checksum for detecting communication errors. It’s a trade-off that some robot builders would be happy to make, but others might not.

Externally, these servos have bountiful mounting options including some we didn’t know to ask for. Historically Lynxmotion kits have used a wide variety of servo mounting brackets, so they are motivated to make mechanical integration easy. The most novel offering is the ability to bolt external gears to the servo body. A set of 1:3 gears allow for gearing the servo up or down, or you can use a set of 1:1 gears for a compact gripper.

As you’d expect of servos in this price range, they all have metal gears, but they also have the ability to power the motor directly from a battery pack (a 3 cell lithium polymer is recommended). There are additional features, like an RGB LED for visual feedback, which we didn’t cover here so dig into the documentation for more. We look forward to seeing how these interesting little actuators perform in future robotics projects.

Wrangling RC Servos Becoming A Hassle? Try Serial Bus Servos!

When we need actuators for a project, a servo from the remote-control hobby world is a popular solution. Though as the number of servos go up, keeping their wires neat and managing their control signals become a challenge. Once we start running more servos than we have fingers and toes, it’s worth considering the serial bus variety. Today we’ll go over what they are and examine three products on the market.

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The Sensor Array That Grew Into A Robot Cat

Human brains evolved to pay extra attention to anything that resembles a face. (Scientific term: “facial pareidolia”) [Rongzhong Li] built a robot sensor array with multiple emitters and receivers augmenting a Raspberry Pi camera in the center. When he looked at his sensor array, he saw the face of a cat looking back at him. This started his years-long Petoi OpenCat project to build a feline-inspired body to go with the face.

While the name of the project signals [Rhongzhong]’s eventual intention, he has yet to release project details to the open-source community. But by reading his project page and scrutinizing his YouTube videos (a recent one is embedded below) we can decipher some details. Motion comes via hobby remote-control servos orchestrated by an Arduino. Higher-level functions such as awareness of environment and Alexa integration are handled by a Raspberry Pi 3.

The secret (for now) sauce are the mechanical parts that tie them all together. From impact-absorption spring integrated into the upper leg to how its wrists/ankles articulate. [Rongzhong] believes the current iteration is far too difficult to build and he wants to simplify construction before release. And while we don’t have much information on the software, the sensor array that started it all implies some level of sensor fusion capabilities.

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Pan And Tilt With Dual Controllers

It wasn’t long ago that faced with a controller project, you might shop for something with just the right features and try to minimize the cost. These days, if you are just doing a one-off, it might be just as easy to throw commodity hardware at it. After all, a Raspberry Pi costs less than a nice meal and it is more powerful than a full PC would have been not long ago.

When [Joe Coburn] wanted to make a pan and tilt webcam he didn’t try to find a minimal configuration. He just threw a Raspberry Pi in for interfacing to the Internet and an Arduino in to control two RC servo motors. A zip tie holds the servos together and potentially the web cam, too.

You can see the result in the video below. It is a simple matter to set up the camera with the Pi, send some commands to the Arduino and hook up to the Internet.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: Dtto Modular Robot

A robot to explore the unknown and automate tomorrow’s tasks and the ones after them needs to be extremely versatile. Ideally, it was capable of being any size, any shape, and any functionality, shapeless like water, flexible and smart. For his Hackaday Prize entry, [Alberto] is building such a modular, self-reconfiguring robot: Dtto.

ditto_family To achieve the highest possible reconfigurability, [Alberto’s] robot is designed to be the building block of a larger, mechanical organism. Inspired by the similar MTRAN III, individual robots feature two actuated hinges that give them flexibility and the ability to move on their own. A coupling mechanism on both ends of the robot allows the little crawlers to self-assemble in various configurations and carry out complex tasks together. They can chain together to form a snake, turn into a wheel and even become four (or more) legged walkers. With six coupling faces on each robot, that allow for connections in four orientations, virtually any topology is possible.

Each robot contains two strong servos for the hinges and three smaller ones for the coupling mechanism. Alignment magnets help the robots to index against each other before a latch locks them in place. The clever mechanism doubles as an ejector, so connections can be undone against the force of the alignment magnets. Most of the electronics, including an Arduino Nano, a Bluetooth and a NRF24L01+ module, are densely mounted inside one end of the robot, while the other end can be used to add additional features, such as a camera module, an accelerometer and more. The following video shows four Dtto robots in a snake configuration crawling through a tube.

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Robo Face Speaks

If you are doing a senior design project in engineering school, it takes some guts to make a robotic duplicate of the school’s president. He or she might be flattered, or completely offended. Us? We laughed out loud. Check out the video below. Spoiler: the nose/moustache wiggle at the end kills us every time.

The project uses a variety of parts including a plastic mask, an Erector set, and the obligatory Arduino with an MP3 shield. There are many articulated parts including eyes, nose, mouth, and wiggly moustache. The face uses RC servos, although [gtoombs] says he’d use stepper motors next time for smoother motion.

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3D Printed RC Servo To Linear Actuator Conversion

RC servos are handy when you need to rotate something. You can even modify them to rotate continuously if that’s what you need. However, [Roger Rabbit] needed linear motion, but wanted the simple control afforded by an RC servo. The solution? A 3D printed housing that converts a servo’s rotation into linear motion.

The actuator uses five different parts, a few screws, and a common RC servo. The video shows the actuator pushing and pulling a 200g load with a 6V supply. There’s some room for adjustment, so different servos should work.

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