Life At JPL Hack Chat

Join us on Wednesday, August 21st at noon Pacific for the Life at JPL Hack Chat with Arko!

There’s a reason why people use “rocket science” as a metaphor for things that are hard to do. Getting stuff from here to there when there is a billion miles away and across a hostile environment of freezing cold, searing heat, and pelting radiation isn’t something that’s easily accomplished. It takes a dedicated team of scientists and engineers working on machines that can reach out into the vastness of space and work flawlessly the whole time, and as much practice and testing as an Earth-based simulation can provide.

Arko, also known as Ara Kourchians, is a Robotics Electrical Engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of NASA’s research and development centers. Nestled at the outskirts of Pasadena against the flanks of the San Gabriel Mountains, JPL is the birthplace of the nation’s first satellite as well as the first successful interplanetary probe. They build the robots that explore the solar system and beyond for us; Arko gets to work on those space robots every day, and that might just be the coolest job in the world.

Join us on the Hack Chat to get your chance to ask all those burning questions you have about working at JPL. What’s it like to build hardware that will leave this world and travel to another? Get the inside story on how NASA designs and tests systems for space travel. And perhaps get a glimpse at what being a rocket scientist is all about.

join-hack-chatOur Hack Chats are live community events in the Hackaday.io Hack Chat group messaging. This week we’ll be sitting down on Wednesday, August 21 at 12:00 PM Pacific time. If time zones have got you down, we have a handy time zone converter.

Click that speech bubble to the right, and you’ll be taken directly to the Hack Chat group on Hackaday.io. You don’t have to wait until Wednesday; join whenever you want and you can see what the community is talking about.

DIY Personal Assistant Robot Hears And Sees All

Who wouldn’t want a robot that can fetch them a glass of water? [Saral Tayal] didn’t just think that, he jumped right in and built his own personal assistant robot. This isn’t just some remote-controlled rover though. The robot actually listens to his voice and recognizes his face.

The body of the robot is the common “Rover 5” platform, to which [Saral] added a number of 3D printed parts. A forklift like sled gives the robot the ability to pick things up. Some of the parts are more about form than function – [Saral] loves NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, so he added some simulated solar cells and other greebles.

The Logitech webcam up front is very functional — images are fed to machine learning models, while audio is processed to listen for commands. This robot can find and pick up 90 unique objects.

The robot’s brains are a Raspberry Pi. It uses TensorFlow for object recognition. Some of the models [Saral] is using are pretty large – so big that the Pi could only manage a couple of frames per second at 100% CPU utilization. A Google Coral coprocessor sped things up quite a bit, while only using about 30% of the Pi’s processor.

It takes several motors to control to robot’s tracks and sled. This is handled by two Roboclaw motor controllers which themselves are commanded by the Pi.

We’ve seen quite a few mobile robot rovers over the years, but [Saral’s] ‘bot is one of the most functional designs out there. Even better is the fact that it is completely open source. You can find the code and 3D models on his GitHub repo.

Check out a video of the personal assistant rover in action after the break.

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Muscle Wire BugBot And A Raspberry Pi Android With Its Eye On You At Maker Faire

I spent a good chunk of Saturday afternoon hanging out at the Homebrew Robotics Club booth at Maker Faire Bay area. They have a ton of really interesting robot builds on display and I just loved hearing about what went into these two in particular.

It’s obvious where BugBot gets its name. The six-legged walker is the creation of [Mark Johnston] who built the beast in a time where components for robots were much harder to come by. Each leg is driven by a very thin strand of muscle wire which contracts when high voltage is run through it. One of the really tricky parts of the build was finding a way to attach this wire. It has a very low melting point, so trying to solder it usually results in melting right through. His technique is to wrap the wire around the leg itself, then slide a small bit of brass tubing over it and make a crimp connection.

At the heart of the little bug is a PIC microcontroller that is point-to-point soldered to the rest of the components. This only caused real problems once, when Mark somehow bricked the chip and had to replace it. Look close and you’ll see there’s a lot of fiddly bits to work around to pull that off. As I said, robot building was more difficult before the explosion of components and breakout modules hit the scene. The wireless control components on this were actually salvaged out of children’s RC toys. They’re not great by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the best source at the time and it works! You can find a demo of the robot embedded after the jump.

Ralph Campbell (left) and Mark Johnston (right)

An Android robot was on display, but of course, I was most interested in seeing what was beneath the skin. In the image above you can see the mask sitting to the left of the “Pat” skeleton. Ralph Campbell has been working on this build, and plans to incorporate interactive features like facial recognition and gesture recognition to affect the gaze of the robot.

Inside each of the ping pong ball eyes is a Raspberry Pi camera (actually the Adafruit Spy Camera because of its small board size). Ralph has a separate demonstration for facial recognition that he’s in the process of incorporating. But for me, it was the mechanical design of the bot that I find fascinating.

The structure of the skull is coat hanger lashed and soldered together using magnet wires. The eyes move thanks to a clever frame made out of paper clips. The servos to the side of each eye move the gaze up and down, while a servo beneath the eye takes care of left and right. A wooden match stick performs double duty — keeping the camera in place as the pupil of the eye, and allowing it to pivot along the paperclip track of the vertical actuator. It’s as simple as it can be and I find it quite clever!

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2019 Cornell Cup Winners Include Autonomous Boat, Flapping UAV, And Leaping Rover

For college-aged engineers and designers, finding a problem they’re truly passionate about early on could very well set the trajectory for an entire career. This is precisely the goal of the Cornell Cup, a competition that tasks applicants with solving a real-world problem in a unique and interesting way. From what we saw this is definitely working, as teams showed up with ornithopter-based quadcopters, robotic dinghies, forest fire sniffers, and high-jumping rovers.

With such an open ended approach, individual entries have a tendency to vary wildly, running the gamut from autonomous vehicles to assistive technology. No team feels pressured to pursue a project they aren’t truly invested in, and everyone’s the better for it.

Given such lofty goals, Hackaday was proud to sponsor the 2019 Cornell Cup. Especially as it so closely aligns with the product design focus of this year’s Hackaday Prize. Designing something which solves a real-world problem is definitely part of the formula when the goal is to reach large scale production. And after seeing the entries first-hand during the Finals at Kennedy Space Center, we think every one of them would be a fantastic entry into the Hackaday Prize.

I don’t envy the judges who ultimately had to narrow it down to just a few teams to take home their share of the nearly $20,000 awarded. Join me after the break for a closer look at the projects that ended up coming out on top.

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Kid Rover Is Six Wheels Of Awesome

There are plenty of ways to go about learning to TIG weld. Most involve a series of practice parts making butt joints and welding together various sections of pipe. [Kris Temmerman] decided to go a little bit farther, however. The result is a kid rover that’s sure to be the envy of every neighbourhood child for a few zipcodes around.

The chassis is an all-aluminium affair, making TIG welding the perfect choice for the job. Of course, [Kris] wasn’t content to simply build a basic go-kart or buggy. This sweet ride is inspired by the rocker-bogie designs of NASA’s Mars rovers, giving it the ride height and flexibility to roam over serious obstacles. Naturally, there’s six-wheel drive and four-wheel steering to complete the dynamic package. It should also be noted that yellow wheels are a stunning design choice that we just don’t see enough of.

It’s a beautifully crafted vehicle, and a testament to [Kris]’s machining and design skills. We can’t wait to see it given a shakedown run on the muddy fields of Belgium. If you’re eager to start your own rocker-bogie build, NASA’s got the open source designs to get you started. Video after the break.

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A 3D Printed Robotic Chariot For Your Phone

As we’ve said many times in the past, the wide availability of low-cost modular components has really lowered the barrier to entry for many complex projects which previously would have been nigh-on impossible for the hobbyist to tackle. The field of robotics has especially exploded over the last few years, as now even $100 can put together a robust robotics experimentation platform which a decade ago might have been the subject of a DARPA grant.

But what if you want to go even lower? What’s the cheapest and easiest way to put together something like a telepresence robot? That’s exactly what [Advance Robotics] set out to determine with their latest project, and the gadget’s final form might be somewhat surprising. Leveraging the fact that nearly everyone has a device capable of video calls in their pocket, the kit uses simple hardware and 3D printed components to produce a vehicle that can carry around a smartphone. With the phone providing the audio and video link, the robot only needs to handle rolling around in accordance with the operators commands.

The robot chassis consists of a few simple 3D printed components, including the base which holds the phone and electronics, the wheels, and the two rear “spoons” which are used to provide a low-friction way of keeping the two-wheeled device vertical. To get it rolling, two standard DC gear motors are bolted to the sides. With the low cost of printer filament and the fact that these motors can be had for as little as $2 online, it’s hard to imagine a cheaper way to get your electronics moving.

As for the electronics, [Advance Robotics] is using the Wemos D1 Mini ESP8266 development board along with L298N motor controller, another very low-cost solution. The provided source code pulls together a few open source libraries and examples to provide a simple web-based user interface which allows the operator to connect to the bot from their browser and move it around with just a few clicks of the mouse.

If you like the idea of printing a rover to explore your living room but want something a bit more advanced, we’ve seen printable robotics platforms that are sure to meet your needs, no matter what your skill level is.

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Skeletal Robot Skips The Chassis

With the high availability of low-cost modular electronic components, building your own little robot buddy is easier and more affordable than ever. But while the electronics might be dirt cheap thanks to the economies of scale, modular robot chassis can be surprisingly expensive. If you’ve got a 3D printer you can always make a chassis that way, but what if you’re looking for something a bit more artisanal?

For his entry into the Circuit Sculpture Contest, [Robson Couto] has built a simple robot which dumps the traditional chassis for a frame made out of bent and soldered copper wire. Not only does this happen to look really cool in a Steampunk kind of way, it’s also a very cheap way of knocking together a basic bot with just the parts you have on hand. Not exactly a heavy-duty chassis, to be sure, but certainly robust enough to rove around your workbench.

The dual servos constrained within the wire frame have been modified for continuous rotation, which combined with the narrow track should make for a fairly maneuverable little bot. [Robson] equipped his servos with copper wheels built in the same style of the frame, which likely isn’t great for traction but really does help sell the overall look. If you aren’t planning on entering your creation into a contest that focuses on unique construction, we’d suggest some more traditional wheels for best results.

The brains of this bot are provided by an ATmega8 with external 16MHz crystal tacked onto the pins. There’s also a ultrasonic sensor board mounted to the servos which eventually will give this little fellow the ability to avoid obstacles. Of course, it doesn’t take a robotics expert to realize there’s currently no onboard power supply in the design. We’d love to say that he’s planning on using the copper loops of the frame to power the thing via induction, but we imagine [Robson] is still fiddling around with the best way to get juice into his wireframe creation before the Contest deadline.

Speaking of which, there’s still plenty of time to get your own Circuit Sculpture creation submitted. If it’s a functional device that isn’t scared to show off the goods, we’re interested in seeing it. Just document the project on Hackaday.io and submit it to the contest before the January 8th, 2019 deadline.