Robot hackathon: meet our Train Overlord

by on Apr.11, 2011, under Projects, Uncategorized

This weekend’s robot hackathon was a huge success. Not only did everyone who participated have a blast, but we actually ended up with a nifty little robot too. You can also check out Eric’s blog post on the event as well as this fantastic set of flickr photos. Here’s a clip of the robot in action in one of our early tests:

The robot in the video runs on a set of powered train track rails. Power is drawn from the rails into the Arduino and the motor shield atop the carriage (photo: motorizing the carriage). The arduino is our robot “brain” (photo: coding the brain) that issues all the movement and LED blink commands (yes, any robot worth its salt MUST have blinking LEDs). While we now have several feet of track installed, this turned out to be a difficult job since hacklab apparently has  a 4″ thick concrete ceiling. But thanks to a lot of hard work (photo: drilling the ceiling) it’s now rock solid and looks awesome. The idea is to lay additional track that will eventually allow the robot to drive along the ceiling all over the lab. Our “use case” is a robot that can be commanded to head over to the desks, pick up empty pop cans and ferry them over to the recycling bin (more about that in a moment).

After the above video was taken, we started to outfit the robot with additional capabilities and sensors. The first was a Sharp IR distance sensor that we’d like to use for robot positioning along the track. The second was this little contraption (see if you can guess what it is before scrolling further):


This little gadget is actually a winch that can raise or lower a bucket from the robot. In our proposed  pop can pickup “use case” the winch is what will enable the robot to pick up and deliver pop cans to the recycling bin. …what? “ugly” you say?  Not to us. What it lacks in sleek lines and striking curves is overshadowed by character and performance. As an example, if you look carefully, on the left side of the spool we have a heart shaped piece of acrylic that serves as our motor hub (yes, every self respecting robot needs a heart)! And equally cool is that just above it we have a limit switch with a roller on it that tracks along the edges of the heart as the spool turns, sending our robot three electronic “clicks” each rotation (two at the top of the heart and one at the bottom) that help us encode/track the position of the winch. It also has a homing switch at the top to allow the robot to figure out where the bucket is after a reboot.  So will it lift a pop can? You bet!  The heaviest object we tested with it was the fire extinguisher …which it lifted without a problem!

And of course, this is just the beginning. We have lots of code left to write, track to lay, and sensors to add. We also plan to give the robot a xbee wireless connection so we can issue it commands from within the lab as well. Adding a pan/tilt laser pointer atop the robot is also on our to-do list.

Thanks to everyone for an awesomely fun weekend, and feel free to roll up your sleeves and join us on this project as Hacklab’s Train Overlord continues to evolve!

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