Ball Balancing Robot

Over the last few years, inertial sensing systems have made significant progress as sensors and actuators have become more powerful and cheaper. For instance, although it did not change the world in the way that it was intended, the Segway has become ubiquitous enough that everyone knows what it is, and inertial sensing platforms are regularly included in consumer products from smart phones to golf clubs. However, this ball balancing robot from the Robot Development Engineering Laboratory at Tohoku Gakuin University in Japan is one of the coolest implementations of this type of system that I have seen.

Although ball balancing robots are not new (from a controls perspective, it is a great example of the classic inverted pendulum problem), there are several noteworthy features about this robot. First, the robot is omnidirectional and can rotate around its vertical axis (zero turning radius). Second, it has a passive control mode so you can push it around without exerting much force – the video shows some good examples of this. These two wrinkles considerably increase the versatility of the robot.

The other thing that is cool about this project is the accessibility of the hardware. It uses a 16-bit MCU with a few sets of accelerometers and gyros, all of which are readily available for on the order of a few dollars, even at prototype volumes. And, since the project was publicized in 2010, companies like Invensense, ST, and Kionix have released integrated 6-axis chips (a 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis gyro on the same die with integrated signal processing) and announced the imminent release of 9-axis chips (add a 3-axis magnetometer for orientation using the earth’s magnetic field). Advances like these are just more evidence of how feasible it is becoming to implement remarkably cool functionality into consumer products. Personally, I can’t watch the video without imagining this robot as a mobile drink tray – hopefully something like it will be bringing me a beer before I know it.

Useless Machines

Machines don’t always have a functional purpose; sometimes they are built just to entertain. The machine in the video below takes that concept to a whole new level. It’s only function is to turn itself back off.

After finding this video, I came across an even more awesomely useless machine made by a German hobbyist named Andreas Fiessler. He adapted a broken printer for his machine, which is about the best use I can think of for a broken printer. The video is pretty amusing:

Just in case that video inspires you to make your own, Andreas offers a great description of how he made it happen on his website.

Inflatable Robotics

I recently saw a cool article and video (below) on a new project from Other Lab, one of the most interesting groups in the Bay Area robotics scene.

The video gets into some inflatable robotics work that they are doing, with some really interesting potential applications around human-safe robots and medical robotics. However, what I found most interesting were some thoughts from Otherlab co-founder Saul Griffith on the impact that engineers can and do have on the world around them. The topic of how and how meaningfully we as engineers can affect the world really resonates with me and I am happy to see it get discussed in a larger forum. I couldn’t agree more with Saul’s challenge to all of today’s (and tomorrow’s) engineers: keep dreaming and stretching your notions of what is possible. The world is a canvas with infinite possibility for improvement and beauty.

21st Century Pack Mule

Boston Dynamics, who many of you may know from Big Dog and other autonomous quadruped robots they have developed, released a new video a few days ago featuring their Legged Squad Support System (LS3) robot (as well as Friend of Pocobor Alex Perkins, the thespian/engineer who co-stars in the video).

The LS3 is essentially a pack mule for the future: it is meant to carry supplies for US soldiers and Marines in the field to both reduce their physical burden and also free up cognitive bandwidth for more important tasks. As such, it is designed to carry up to 400 pounds, walk 20 miles and operate for 24 hours without human intervention (other than voice commands to follow / stop / etc.).

From a mechatronics perspective, there are a number of interesting design challenges that an application like this poses. First of all, the dynamics and controls for a quadruped robot are considerably more complex than those for a wheeled or tracked equivalent. However, quadrupeds (or bipeds like humans, for that matter) can handle much rougher terrain than wheeled or tracked robots and this expanded mobility drastically increases their value. Ultimately the hope is that pack systems like the LS3 will be able to follow the soldier anywhere they are capable of going.

The second significant engineering obstacle centers around the the sensing and control systems required to follow the soldier and choose the best path given the upcoming terrain at any given time. There are considerable hardware, software and algorithmic issues that have to be addressed to arrive at a prototype robot like one in the video. There are also some interesting overlaps with the technology used for self-driving cars or any other mobile autonomous system.

Based on the examples that have been publicized over the past few years by Boston Dynamics and other groups pursing similar research and development, I have been deeply impressed by the pace of development of these types of systems. At this rate, even mountaineering porters might be feeling a little nervous about their job security soon…

Swarm Robotics + Flying Drones = Awesome

This is a very cool video on swarm robotics. Specifically, it demonstrates how flying drones can work together with ground based robots to accomplish different tasks. Oh, and if you make it to the end of the video you get to find out the ultimate application of this amazing technology.

Les Machines de L’Ile

We’re going today to Nantes, France, and a really cool interactive mechatronic art installation located on an island in the Loire river. Called Les Machines de L’Ile and created by Francois Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice, its purpose is to fire the imaginations of visitors by helping them visualize a fantasy world at the intersection of Jules Verne and Leonardo Da Vinci.

There are currently two main installations (with a third scheduled for completion in 2014):

1. The Great Elephant: weighing in at nearly 50 tons, this beast can take up to 49 passengers.

2. The Marine World Carousel: even bigger than the Great Elephant, this carousel boasts 35 underwater creatures over 3 levels.

The site is very interactive, with many of the pieces built such that guests can ride them. I’ve never been there but as far as I’m concerned, it sounds way better than Disneyland.

Exploded Views

I stopped by the SF Museum of Modern Art the other day for the first time in a few years and was blown away by Exploded Views, an installation by Jim Campbell (an alum of the EE and math departments at MIT – my kind of artist) that is hanging in the atrium. If you look above your head as you walk into the museum, you will notice 2880 white LEDs hanging from the ceiling in the shape of a large box. From below, you can notice that various lights are flickering on and off but the pattern driving them is not immediately apparent. However, when you walk up the stairs to the first balcony and then look back at the array, you immediately find that you are looking at a kind of 3d screen showing footage of moving silhouettes. When I was there, the film was a boxing match, but there have been several clips that have played at various times.

From a technical perspective, this piece is fascinating to me for a variety of reasons. First of all, the conversion of what I assume is originally standard 2d footage to a signal controlling when each LED turns on and off is a meaty design problem, especially given the ability of the 3d array to provide depth of field. Furthermore, I know from experience that driving large scale LED arrays can be a surprisingly involved process from a hardware perspective, involving thermal management and a significant wiring effort just to locate, connect and debug nearly 3000 LEDs without sacrificing serviceability.

Beyond the engineering points of interest, though, seeing the installation was an extremely compelling artistic experience. Campbell did a great job of executing what was an inspired initial vision to begin with and created an effect that was surprisingly sticky – I spent a lot longer staring at the piece then I normally do at museums and spent the next few days thinking about ideas for variations that would be cool personal projects. I think I talk a lot in these posts about how much I appreciate it when I see something inspiring, especially something that can get people excited about the potential of mechatronics – this is a perfect example and if you have a chance to visit SFMOMA while the piece is up (until October 23), I strongly recommend checking it out.

Granath, The Animatronics Dragon

I came across this scary guy the other day. He (she?) is an animatronic puppet that was built by students from the Poly Bots Club of NYU Poly Tech. It was built for the Puppetry Arts Youth Empowerment Program. I need to make one of these animatronic puppets for Halloween. You can learn more about the Puppetry Arts Program here.

Rubik’s Cube Bot

How cool are Rubik’s Cubes? They are a simple puzzle with virtually infinite possibilities (there are over 43 quintillion – which is 18 zeros – permutations, but who’s counting?). They lend themselves to a variety of different skill and patience levels – people can start by solving one face at a time and work their way towards completion from there. Their appeal is reflected in their status as the best selling toy of all time, having reached nearly 400 million sold since their invention in 1974 by Erno Rubik. A few other interesting facts (via Wikipedia):

– Competitions have been held in events including blindfolded solving, solving the cube underwater in a single breath, and solving the cube with one’s feet
– The development and study of solution algorithms has been the subject of considerable effort but it took until July 2010 for it to be proven (by a team including Tomas Rokicki and Google researchers) that “God’s Number” (i.e. the minimum number of steps in an algorithm that is guaranteed to solve any possible configuration) for a 3x3x3 Rubik’s Cube is 20
– The current world record is 5.66 seconds, by Feliks Zemdegs

The last bullet brings me to my reason for writing this post – I recently heard about the CubeStorm II, which set a new world record for solving a Rubik’s Cube (5.35 seconds). Created by David Gilday and Mike Dobson, it is a pretty cool system for several reasons. First of all, it is made using Legos, another entry on my short list of favorite toys. Second of all, it uses an Android smartphone as its eyes (vision capture to sense the cube’s state) and brain (algorithm optimization and actuator control). Without getting too deep into the (impressive) specifics of the robot’s design and implementation, I wanted to emphasize how great it is that we have such powerful tools that are so readily available to us. There was a time in the not-so-distant past when implementing this type of system would have required a breathtakingly expensive array of equipment; the fact that it can now be done with children’s toys and a device that the majority of people carry around in their pocket is amazing to me. This drastic improvement in hardware capability available to the general public for a relatively tiny cost, typified by the rise of smartphones like the one used in the CubeStorm II, is a huge factor in the on-going democratization of design. The world and man’s creative capacity continue to be less and less limited by the cost and scarcity of hardware, which opens the door for quintillions of possibilities. A world bounded only by our imagination sounds pretty good to me – and, like any good toy, it should excite the child in all of us.

Today’s Factory Automation

Building on my post a few months ago that looked at pre-WWII automotive manufacturing technology, I thought it would be interesting to contrast that with some state of the art (post-millennium) technology. I recently saw the below video, which is a fascinating look at a literally transparent Volkswagen plant in Dresden, Germany for the Phaeton.

The idea behind the factory is that customers and the general public can see the whole assembly process for the cars and (presumably) marvel at the level of quality and technological sophistication being used. It actually is a beautiful facility and, in typical German fashion, everything is always precisely in its place.

Amongst the features of the factory that I found particularly cool were the autonomous part delivery sleds that bring components to the assembly line, the inductive charging (from the floor!) of the part tracking modules, the inventory and progress tracking system itself (which registers when each individual bolt and other component is added), and the electric assembly lift. All in all, the factory is a great example of how far personal transportation manufacturing has come over the past 80 years. I have no doubt that it will be amazing to see where things stand after the next 80 years as well – bring on the flying cars.