Control a Swarm of RC Vehicles with ESP8266

Over at RCgroups, user [Cesco] has shared a very interesting project which uses the ever-popular ESP8266 as both a transmitter and receiver for RC vehicles. Interestingly, this code makes use of the ESP-Now protocol, which allows devices to create a mesh network without the overhead of full-blown WiFi. According to the Espressif documentation, this mode is akin to the low-power 2.4GHz communication used in wireless mice and keyboards, and is designed specifically for persistent, peer-to-peer connectivity.

Switching an ESP8266 between being a transmitter or receiver is as easy as commenting out a line in the source code and reflashing the firmware. One transmitter (referred to as the server in the source code) can command eight receiving ESP8266s simultaneously. [Cesco] specifically uses the example of long-range aircraft flying in formation; only coming out of the mesh network when it’s time to manually land each one.

[Cesco] has done experiments using both land and air vehicles. He shows off a very hefty looking tracked rover, as well as a quickly knocked together quadcopter. He warns the quadcopter flies like “a wet sponge”, but it does indeed fly with the ESP’s handling all the over the air communication.

To be clear, you still need a traditional PPM-compatible RC receiver and transmitter pair to use his code. The ESPs are simply handling the over-the-air communication. They aren’t directly responsible for taking user input or running the speed controls, for example.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen an ESP8266 take the co-pilot’s seat in a quadcopter, but the maniacal excitement we feel when considering the possibility of having our very own swarm of flying robots gives this particular project an interesting twist.

Remember When Scratch-Built Robots Were Hard?

Even simple robots used to require quite a bit of effort to pull together. This example shows how far we’ve come with the tools and techniques that make things move and interact. It’s a 3D printed rover controlled by the touchscreen on your phone. This achieves the most basic building block of wheeled robotics, and the process is easy on you and your pocketbook.

We just can’t stop loving the projects [Greg Zumwalt], aka[gzumwalt], is turning out. We just saw his air-powered airplane engine and now this little rover perks our ears up. The design uses the familiar trick of two powered wheels with a ball bearing to avoid problems with differential turning. But the simplicity is all in the implementation.

This bot is 3D printed using eight very simple pieces: four gears, two axles, a cap and a single tray to mount everything. The cap captures the ball bearing which pokes out a hole in the bottom of the tray to form an omnidirectional wheel. Two 9G servos modified for continuous rotation. The mating teeth of the gears are found on the wheel sections which have grooves for neoprene O-rings to provide traction. The entire thing is driven by an ESP8266 in the form of an Adafruit Feather Huzzah. This is programmed using the Arduino IDE and your phone can connect directly or through a WiFi router.

We’re not crazy, right? Robots didn’t used to be this easy to pull together? This goes for the power of 3D printing versus traditional basement fabrication methods, but in the availability of powerful yet inexpensive embedded systems and the available tools and libraries to program them. Kudos to you [Greg] for showing us how great the currently available building blocks are in the hands of anyone who wants to channel their engineering creativity. He certainly has… this chassis ultimately powers Santa’s sleigh.

Need a bigger printing challenge? Here’s a 3D printed rover that goes all-in with the suspension system.

Continue reading “Remember When Scratch-Built Robots Were Hard?”

The Last Interesting Rover Had A Gas Turbine Engine

If you have a car parked outside as you are reading this, the overwhelming probability is that it has a reciprocating piston engine powered by either petrol(gasoline), or diesel fuel. A few of the more forward-looking among you may own a hybrid or even an electric car, and fewer still may have a piston engine car powered by LPG or methane, but that is likely to be the sum of the Hackaday reader motoring experience.

We have become used to understanding that perhaps the era of the petroleum-fueled piston engine will draw to a close and that in future decades we’ll be driving electric, or maybe hydrogen. But visions of the future do not always materialize as we expect them. For proof of that, we only need to cast our minds back to the 1950s. Motorists in the decade following the Second World War would have confidently predicted a future of driving cars powered by jet engines. For a while, as manufacturers produced a series of prototypes, it looked like a safe bet.

The Chrysler gas turbine car from [Brian]'s article. CZmarlin [Public domain].
The Chrysler gas turbine car from [Bryan]’s article. CZmarlin [Public domain].
Back in August, my colleague [Bryan] wrote a feature: “The Last Interesting Chrysler Had A Gas Turbine Engine“, in which he detailed the story of one of the more famous gas turbine cars. But the beautifully styled Chrysler was not the only gas turbine car making waves at the time, because meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic a series of prototypes were taking the gas turbine in a slightly different direction.

Rover was a British carmaker that was known for making sensible and respectable saloon cars. They passed through a series of incarnations into the nationalized British Leyland empire, eventually passing into the hands of British Aerospace, then BMW, and finally a consortium of businessmen under whose ownership they met an ignominious end. If you have ever wondered why the BMW 1-series has such ungainly styling cues, you are looking at the vestiges of a Rover that never made it to the forecourt. The very successful Land Rover marque was originally a Rover product, but beyond that sector, they are not remembered as particularly exciting or technically advanced.

The Rover Jet1 prototype. Allen Watkin [CC BY-SA 2.0].
The Rover JET1 prototype. Allen Watkin [CC BY-SA 2.0].
At the close of the Second World War though, Rover found themselves in an interesting position. One of their contributions to war production had been the gas turbine engines found in the first generation of British jet aircraft, and as part of their transition to peacetime production they began to investigate civilian applications for the technology. Thus the first ever gas turbine car was a Rover, the 1950 JET1. Bearing the staid and respectable styling of a 1950s bank manager’s transport rather than the space-age look you might expect of the first ever gas turbine car, it nonetheless became the first holder of the world speed record for a gas turbine powered car when in 1952 it achieved a speed of 152.691 MPH.

The JET1 was soon followed by a series of further jet-powered prototypes culminating in 1956’s T3 and 1961’s T4. Both of these were practical everyday cars, the T3, a sports coupé, and the T4, an executive saloon car whose styling would appear in the 1963 petrol-engined P6 model. There was also an experimental BMC truck fitted with the engine. The P6 executive car was produced until 1977, and all models were designed to have space for a future gas turbine option by having a very unusual front suspension layout with a pivot allowing the spring and damper to be placed longitudinally in the front wing.

The Rover-BRM racing car at Gaydon. David Merrett [CC BY 2.0].
The Rover-BRM racing car at Gaydon. David Merrett [CC BY 2.0].
It was not only prototypes for production cars with gas turbines that came from Rover in the 1960s though, for in 1963 they put their gas turbine into a BRM racing chassis and entered it into the Le Mans 24 hour endurance race. It returned in the 1964 season fitted with a novel rotating ceramic honeycomb heat exchanger to improve its efficiency, racing for a final season in 1965.

The fate of the gas-turbine Rovers would follow that of their equivalent cars from other manufacturers including the Chrysler covered by [Bryan]. Technical difficulties were never fully overcome, the increasing cost of fuel  made gas turbine cars uneconomic to run, and meanwhile by the 1960s the piston engine had improved immeasurably over what had been available when the JET1 had been produced. The Rover P6 never received its gas turbine, and the entire programme was abandoned. Today all the surviving cars are in museums, the JET1 prototype in the Science Museum in London, and the T3, T4, and Rover-BRM racing car at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. The truck survives in private hands, having been restored, and is a regular sight at summer time shows.

As a footnote to the Rover story, in response to the development of JET1 at the start of the 1950s, their rival and later British Leyland stablemate Austin developed their own gas turbine car. If international readers find Jet1’s styling a bit quaint compared to the American jet cars, it is positively space-age when compared to the stately home styling of the Sheerline limousine to which Austin fitted their gas turbine.

Rover T4 gas turbine header image: Matthias v.d. Elbe [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Gorgeous Engineering Inside Wheels of a Robotic Trail Buddy

Robots are great in general, and [taylor] is currently working on something a bit unusual: a 3D printed explorer robot to autonomously follow outdoor trails, named Rover. Rover is still under development, and [taylor] recently completed the drive system and body designs, all shared via OnShape.

Rover has 3D printed 4.3:1 reduction planetary gearboxes embedded into each wheel, with off the shelf bearings and brushless motors. A Raspberry Pi sits in the driver’s seat, and the goal is to use a version of NVIDA’s TrailNet framework for GPS-free navigation of paths. As a result, [taylor] hopes to end up with a robotic “trail buddy” that can be made with off-the-shelf components and 3D printed parts.

Moving the motors and gearboxes into the wheels themselves makes for a very small main body to the robot, and it’s more than a bit strange to see the wheel spinning opposite to the wheel’s hub. Check out the video showcasing the latest development of the wheels, embedded below.

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Earth Rovers Explore Our Own Planet

While Mars is currently under close scrutiny by NASA and other space agencies, there is still a lot of exploring to do here on Earth. But if you would like to explore a corner of our own planet in the same way NASA that explores Mars, it’s possible to send your own rover to a place and have it send back pictures and data for you, rather than go there yourself. This is what [Norbert Heinz]’s Earth Explorer robots do, and anyone can drive any of the robots to explore whatever locations they happen to be in.

A major goal of the Earth Explorer robot is to be easy to ship. This is a smaller version of the same problem the Mars rovers have: how to get the most into a robot while having as little mass as possible. The weight is kept to under 500g, and the length, width, and height to no more than 90cm combined. This is easy to do with some toy cars modified to carry a Raspberry Pi, a camera, and some radios and sensors. After that, the robots only need an interesting place to go and an Internet connection to communicate with Mission Control.

[Norbert] is currently looking for volunteers to host some of these robots, so if you’re interested head on over to the project page and get started. If you’d just like to drive the robots, though, you can also get your rover fix there as well. It’s an interesting project that will both get people interested in exploring Earth and in robotics all at the same time. And, if you’d like to take the rover concept beyond simple exploration, there are other machines that can take care of the same planet they explore.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: SafeRanger, a Roving Power Plant Monitor

Engineering student [Varun Suresh] designed his SafeRanger rover to inspect oil and gas power plants for abnormal temperatures as well as gas leaks. The rover explores critical areas of the factory, and data is sent to a control center for analysis.

[Varun] built his robot around a Devastator chassis kit from DFRobot, and equipped it with a FLIR Lepton thermal camera and an MQ2 gas sensor, both monitored by a Raspberry Pi. The twin brushless DC motors are controlled by an L293D motor driver IC in conjunction with an Arduino Nano; steering is accomplished with an HC-05 Bluetooth module and a mobile app.

We could see technology like this being implemented in a labyrinthine facility where a human inspector might have a difficult time reaching every nook and cranny. Or just let it wander ar0und, looking for trouble?

Hackaday Prize Entry: InspectorBot Aims to Look Underneath

Why bother crawling into that tiny sewer tunnel and getting coated in Cthulhu knows what — not to mention possibly getting stuck — when you can roll a robot in there instead? That’s what InspectorBot does. It’s [Dennis]’ entry for The Hackaday Prize and a finalist for our Best Product competition.

InspectorBot is a low-profile rover designed to check out the dark recesses of sewers, crawlspaces, and other icky places where humans either won’t fit or don’t want to go. Armed with a Raspberry Pi computer, it sports a high-definition camera pointed up and a regular webcam pointing forward for navigation. It uses point-to-point WiFi for communication and rocks all-wheel drive controlled by a pair of L293D motor drivers.

This seems like fertile ground for us. Pipe-crawlers, chimney-climbers, crawlspace-slitherers all sound like they’d be helpful, particularly in conjunction with some kind of computer vision that allowed the robot to notice problems even when the operator does not. Right now, [Dennis] has the chassis rolling and most of the current work is focused on software. Both cameras are now working, allowing the InspectorBot to send forward-looking and upward-looking video back to the operator at the same time. This, alone, is a great advancement of the current crop of Raspberry Pi rovers and adds a lot of functionality to an easy-to-build platform.