It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone reading this, but hackers and makers absolutely love LEGO. We think you’d be hard pressed to find a Hackaday reader, young or old, that hasn’t spent some quality time with the little plastic bricks from Billund, Denmark. So it follows that there’s a considerable community of individuals who leverage their better than average technical prowess to utilize LEGO in new and unique ways. But the activities and history of these LEGO hackers is not exactly common knowledge to those who aren’t heavily vested in the hobby.
During the recent FOSSCON 2018 in Philadelphia, Daniel Pikora gave attendees a comprehensive look at the intersection of open source development and the world’s most popular brand of construction toys. A software developer with a penchant for open source code by trade, he’s also an avid member of what’s known as the Adult Fan of LEGO (AFOL) community who’s exhibited his creations at shows across the United States and Canada. Such a unique perspective, with a foot in both the FOSS and LEGO camps, makes Daniel an ideal tour guide for this particular microcosm of toys and tech.
In a whirlwind presentation that took attendees through 49 slides in about as many minutes, Daniel covered LEGO’s beginnings in the 1930s to the rise of 3D printed custom bricks, and everything in between. Some of the engineering-centric product lines, such as Technic and Mindstorms, were already fairly well known to the types of folk who spent a beautiful Saturday in Philadelphia at an open source conference. But Daniel’s deep-dive into the long history of open source LEGO projects brought to light the work of so many dedicated developers that everyone walked away with a newfound respect for the amount of work the AFOL community has put into elevating LEGO from a child’s toy to a legitimate tool. Join me below for a look at the particulars of that deep dive.
Mechanum wheels are great, but you have to have them perfectly alined or they come across a little clunky, giving your robot a herky-jerky movement. Robotics educator and supreme LEGO builder [Yoshihito Isogawa] built a mechanum-wheeled rover that has the angles right: each wheel consists of 12 smaller rubber tires angled at 45 degrees. The key to the project is Part Number 85940, accurately if unsexily named “double Ø4.85 hole w/ Ø3.2 shaft”. It consists of a double technic hole with a shaft projecting in a 45-degree angle.
Hackaday loves [Yoshihito]’s great creations, which are as beautiful and elegant as they are functional. His all-LEGO centrifugal pump and his spirograph machine make expert use of parts to make the builds as simple as possible.
We love a good LEGO build as much as anyone, but Technics takes it to the next level in terms of creating working mechanisms. And nobody takes Technics as far as [Nico71], as evidenced by his super-fast Technics rope braiding machine.
The last time we saw one of [Nico71]’s builds, it was also a LEGO Technics rope-making machine. At the time, we called it a “rope-braiding machine” and were taken to task in the comments since the strands were merely twisted to make the final product. [Nico71] must have taken that to heart, because the current build results in true braided cordage. That trick is accomplished by flying shuttles that are not attached to either of the two counter-rotating three-spoked wheels. The shuttles are transferred between the two wheels by a sweeper arm, each making a full revolution with one wheel before being transferred to the other. Each shuttle’s thread makes an intertwining figure-eight around the threads from the two fixed bobbins, and the result is a five-strand braided cord. The whole machine is mesmerizing to watch, and the mechanism is silky smooth even at high speeds. It seems like a much simpler design than the previous effort, too.
You’ve got to hand it to builders like [Nico71] that come up with fascinating machines while working within the constraints of the Technics world. And those that leverage the Technics platform in their builds can come up with pretty neat stuff, like this paper tape reader for a music machine.
[JAC_101], the Director of Legal Evil Emeritus for LVL1 Hackerspace (don’t ask me, it’s their title system), was challenged to a hacking duel. It all started years ago. The person who is now president of LVL1, visited the space for the first time and brought with her a discarded Apple II controller for Lego bricks which had previously belonged to her father. Excited to test it, the space found that, unfortunately, LVL1’s Apple II wouldn’t boot. An argument ensued, probably some trash talking, and [JAC_101] left with the challenge: Could he build an Arduino interface for the Apple II Lego controller quicker than the hackerspace could fix its Apple II?”
In the end, a concentrated force by one hacker over two years overcame the collective ADHD of many. He began by opening the interface to look inside, a completely unnecessary step since he found it was already thoroughly documented. Next he forgot about the project for a year. Then he remembered it, and built an interface for an Arduino Uno to hook to the controller and wrote a library for the interface. Realizing that sending serial commands was not in line with the original friendly intention of the device, he added a graphical display to the project; which allowed the user to control the panel with touch. In the end he won the challenge and LVL1 still doesn’t have a working Apple II. We assume some gloating occurred. Some videos of it in action after the break.
Back when he was about seven years old, [Ytai] learned to program on an Atari 800XL. Now he has a seven-year-old of his own and wants to spark his interest in programming, so he created these programmable LEGO bricks with tiny embedded microcontrollers. This is probably one of the few times that “bricking” a microcontroller is a good thing!
The core of the project is the Espruino Pico microcontroller which has the interesting feature of running a Java stack in a very tiny package. The Blocky IDE is very simple as well, and doesn’t bog users down in syntax (which can be discouraging to new programmers, especially when they’re not even a decade old). The bricks that [Ytai] made include a servo motor with bricks on the body and the arm, some LEDs integrated into Technic bricks, and a few pushbutton bricks.
We always like seeing projects that are geared at getting kids interested in creating, programming, and hacking, and this certainly does that! [Ytai] has plans for a few more LEGO-based projects to help keep his kid interested in programming as well, and we look forward to seeing those! If you’re looking for other ways to spark the curiosity of the youths, be sure to check out the Microbot, or if you know some teens that need some direction, perhaps these battlebots are more your style.
Master LEGO craftsman [Baron von Brunk] had the same childhood passions as a lot of us—LEGO (obviously), Transformers, and Nintendo. But he also harbored a passion for traffic lights and road signs. His latest offering, a fully functional LEGO traffic light, is some pretty fantastic plastic. You might recall that we featured [Baron von Brunk]’s LEGO mosaic lamps a few weeks ago. This project is that one on steroids.
The body is made of 1700+ LEGO and Technic pieces. [Baron von Brunk] was kind enough to provide his LDD file, though he says it should be considered a rough guide to construction. The red, yellow, and green 1×1 areas are each lit with a 48-SMD LED floodlight bulb. Colored lights are available, but he used the solid white variety for greater luminescence. The lights are driven by a traffic light controller typically used for model railroads.
[Baron von Brunk] ended up lining the inside with black 1x1s and metallic reflective duct tape to keep the light from leaking out of the masonry. He used some Technic bricks on the rear door to form hinges, and Technic pins to hold the LED lamps.
[M-byte] wrote in to tell us about the Lego Synchro Drive. Although not a new hack, this autonomous vehicle is quite amazing in it’s simplicity. Using only one motor turning at a constant speed, this device is able to navigate obstacles by simply turning.
As [m-byte] was quick to point out, this is a simple task using modern electronics, but this drive is made using only Lego Technic parts. The machine’s motion is quite pleasing. When it hits an obstacle, the outer rotating ring stops, allowing the casters on the bottom to switch direction. One could see this invention coming out of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebook (minus the Legos).