Getting Hackers Excited About Cable Robots

Ever since he looked into them as a way to water and care for his plants, [Tom] has been fascinated with cable robots. These high-flying gadgets can move in three dimensions over huge areas, provided you’ve got the ability to string up the aforementioned cables. But despite their flexibility, there hasn’t been a whole lot of hobbyist level development with these unique systems.

With his entry into the 2019 Hackaday Prize, [Tom] is hoping to change that. He’s learned a lot by building his own cable robots, and now wants to take it to the next level. Ideally with collaboration from the community, if he can find other hackers looking to outfit their homes or workshops with their own miniature sky cranes.

So what can you do with a cable robot? In the video after the break, [Tom] shows one of his creations dutifully transporting beer cans across the room and stacking them into a pyramid. Admittedly this isn’t a particularly useful capability (unless you run a bar, perhaps), but it does show the speed and dexterity of the system even when crossing large distances. If you’ve ever wanted to play the home edition of “Automate the Freight”, this one’s for you.

The system uses a trio of 36 volt stepper motors powered by a homebrew SLA7078 driver that [Tom] designed himself. Each stepper turns a geared-down spindle to which a strong cable is attached. With some clever routing around the workspace, careful orchestration of these small winches can be used to move the point where all the cables meet in 3D space. All that’s left is mounting your gadget of choice to this central point, and away you go.

We’ve seen the concept used commercially, but as far as hobbyist projects go, the most activity we’ve seen in this space would have to be the various room sized 3D printers that have popped up over the years. It would be interesting to see what kind of interesting projects the community could come up with if they had something with a little more muscle.

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Motorized Lens Controller Techs Up Your Webcam

If you’re familiar with the DSLR camera market, you’d know that modern lenses are works of technological art. Crammed full of motors and delicate electronic assemblies, they’re bursting with features such as autofocus, optical stabilization and zoom. [Saulius Lukse] has been experimenting with motorized lenses for webcam applications, and has built a controller to make working with them a snap.

The controller is capable of controlling up to 3 stepper motors, as well as a voice coil, which should be enough for the vast majority of lenses out there. Microstepping is supported, which is key for optical systems in which tiny adjustments can make a big difference. The controller speaks USB and I2C, and is now based on an STM32 chip, having been upgraded from an earlier version which used the venerable ATmega328. The board is designed to be as compact as possible, to enable it to neatly fit inside camera and lens assemblies.

The board has been used to successfully control an 18x zoom lens, among others. Combining such a lens with a webcam and a good pan and tilt mechanism would create a highly capable surveillance package, or an excellent vision system for a robot.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen work from [Kurokesu] in these parts – they’ve done work on pedestrian detection before, too.

Cycloid Drawing Machine Uses Sneaky Stepper Hack

Stepper motors are great for projects that require accurate control of motion. 3D printers, CNC machines and plotters are often built using these useful devices. [InventorArtist] built a stepper-based cycloid drawing machine, and made use of a nifty little hack along the way.

The machine uses a rotating turntable to spin a piece of drawing paper. A pen is then placed in a pantograph mechanism, controlled by another two stepper motors. The build uses the common 28BYJ-48 motor, which are a unipolar, 5-wire design. A common hack is to open these motors up and cut a trace in order to convert them to bipolar operation, netting more torque at the expense of being more complex to drive. [InventorArtist] worked in collaboration with [Doug Commons], who had the idea of instead simply drilling a hole through the case of the motor to cut the trace. This saves opening the motor, and makes the conversion a snap.

[InventorArtist] was able to create a machine capable of beautiful spirograph drawings, and develop a useful hack along the way. Reports are that a jig is in development to make the process foolproof for those keen to mod their own motors. We expect to see parts up on Thingiverse any day now. We’ve also covered the basic version of this hack before.

[Thanks to Darcy Whyte for the tip!]

Yet Another Robotic Rubik’s Solver

The Rubik’s Cube was a smash hit when it came out in 1974, and continues to maintain a following to this day. It can be difficult to solve, but many take up the challenge. The Arduino Rubik’s Solver is a robot that uses electronics and maths to get the job done.

The system consists of computer-based software and a hardware system working in concert to solve the cube. Webcam images are processed on a computer which determines the current state of the cube, and the necessary moves required to solve it. The solving rig is constructed from steel rods, lasercut acrylic, and 3D printed parts, along with an Arduino and six stepper motors. The Arduino receives instructions from the solving computer over USB serial link. These are then used to command the stepper motors to manipulate the cube in the correct fashion.

It’s no speed demon, but the contraption is capable of solving a cube without any problems. Manipulation of the cube is reliable and smooth, and the build is neat and tidy thanks to its carefully designed components. Of course, there are now even Rubik’s Cubes that can solve themselves. Video after the break.

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The Two-Dimensional Stepper Motor

Over on hackaday.io and deep in the Hackaday Prize, a lot of cool people are playing around with the possibilities of putting coils in printed circuit boards. On the face of it, it makes sense: drawing spirals on a PCB gets you an electromagnet. This allows you to do all sorts of crazy things. You can make miniature model maglev trains using the track as a motor. Someone built a wearable Tesla coil.

The latest build to show off the possibilities of motors etched on PCBs is [bobricius]’ micro manipulator. It’s a 100 mm square board capable of moving a small magnet around the surface. The point? Well, if you have to ask that question you’re really never going to get the point.

The design of this stepper motor is simply two coils of wire, with the X axis of the grid placed on the top copper layer of the PCB and the Y axis on the bottom copper layer. There are four poles to each of these coils, and they plug right into a standard stepper driver, so to control this board all you need is a basic Arduino and a motor shield. Or a RepRap board, take your pick, you probably have something sitting around in a junk drawer.

In the test of this board, the stepper motor can move small rare earth magnets around quickly and with high repeatability. As for what use this PCB stepper motor has, if you have to ask that question, you’ll never know. Also, because it looks cool.

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What Can You Learn From An Eggbot?

An eggbot is probably the easiest introduction to CNC machines that you could possibly hope for, at least in terms of the physical build. But at the same time, an eggbot can let you get your hands dirty with all of the concepts, firmware, and the toolchain that you’d need to take your CNC game to the next level, whatever that’s going to be. So if you’ve been wanting to make any kind of machine where stepper motors move, cut, trace, display, or simply whirl around, you can get a gentle introduction on the cheap with an eggbot.

Did we mention Easter? It’s apparently this weekend. Seasonal projects are the worst for the procrastinator. If you wait until the 31st to start working on your mega-awesome New Year’s Dropping Laser Ball-o-tron 3000, it’s not going to get done by midnight. Or so I’ve heard. And we’re certainly not helping by posting this tutorial so late in the season. Sorry about that. On the other hand, if you start now, you’ll have the world’s most fine-tuned eggbot for 2020. Procrastinate tomorrow!

I had two main goals with this project: getting it done quickly and getting it done easily. That was my best shot at getting it done at all. Secondary goals included making awesome designs, learning some new software toolchains, and doing the whole thing on the cheap. I succeeded on all counts, and that’s why I’m here encouraging you to build one for yourself.

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Arduino Drives Seventeen Stepper Motors, Carefully

It’s fair to say that building electronic gadgets is easier now than it ever has been in the past. With low-cost modular components, there’s often just a couple dozen lines of code and a few jumper wires standing between your idea and a functioning prototype. Driving stepper motors is a perfect example: you can grab a cheap controller board, hook it up to a microcontroller, and the rest is essentially just software. But recently [mechatronicsguy] wondered if even that was more hardware than was technically necessary to get the job done.

It’s not that he was intentionally looking to make things more complicated for himself, of course. His rationale was entirely economic; if you’re looking to drive a dozen or more stepper motors, even the “cheap” controllers can add up. So he started to wonder if he could skip the controller entirely and connect the stepper motor directly to the digital pins of an Arduino. Generally speaking this is a bad idea, but if you’re careful and are willing to take the risk, [mechatronicsguy] is living proof it’s possible

So what’s the trick to running a whopping seventeen individual stepper motors directly from the digital pins of an Arduino Mega? Well, to start with you’re not going to be running the beefy NEMA 17 motors like you might find in a 3D printer. [mechatronicsguy] is using the diminutive (and dirt cheap) 28BYJ-48, a light duty stepper used in many consumer products. Even with this relatively tiny motor, you need to crack open the case and cut a trace on the PCB to switch it from unipolar to bipolar.

Beyond that, you need to be careful. [mechatronicsguy] reports he’s had success running as many as ten of them at once, but realistically the fewer operating simultaneously the better. This is actually made easier due to the relatively poor specs of the 28BYJ-48 motor; its huge eleven degree step size means its not really susceptible to the same kind of slippage you’d get on a NEMA 17 when powered down. This means you can cut power to all but the actively moving motor and be fairly sure they’ll all stay where you left them.

With as popular as the 28BYJ-48 stepper is, there are several projects this “quick and dirty” method of interfacing could potentially work with. This small “barn door” star tracker is an obvious example, but we’ve also seen some very nice robotic arms built with these low-cost motors which could benefit from the technique.