Computing stuff tied to the physical world

TwitLEDs robot, part 3

In AVR, Hardware, Software on Jun 24, 2010 at 00:01

To continue on yesterday’s post, here is how we got a little autonomous robot going.

The main part was solved by picking the Asuro robot kit. It’s really low-end, but it has just enough functionality for this project, and at €50, it’s very affordable. In fact, Myra built a spare one because the first unit broke down. In the end, I was still able to fix it: a burnt out transistor (both H-bridges are done with discrete components!). So now we have two Asuro’s:

Dsc 1750

The nice bit about the Asuro is that it has an odometer on each wheel. IOW, there are IR LEDs + sensors to count the number of steps (8 per rev) made by the wheel, and the C library code includes logic to adjust the speed of the motor. It’s a bit crude, but because of this the Asuro can drive fairly straight. As we found out later, it has a bit more trouble doing so while driving slowly, so it’s still a bit wiggly.

But it works. Two small DC motors, some simple gears, motor axles soldered to the PCB (what a great low-cost solution), and room for an extension board. To give you an idea of how crude this thing really is: there is no on-board voltage regulator. When used with 4 alkaline AA batteries, you have to remove a jumper so the extra voltage drop over a diode gets the supply voltage down to under 5.5V …

The Asuro is full of such nifty cost-cutting tricks. It even includes a bidirectional IR link, over which new code can be uploaded. The IR link is very short-range, so it would have been insufficient for our purposes – but for quick code tweaks, the IR link works fine.

Speaking of code, here is the main avoider.c logic running on the ATmega8:

Screen Shot 2010 06 18 at 23.57.08

This is not an Arduino sketch, but I made it look a bit like one by using the same setup() and loop() functions.

This code has to be compiled with avr-gcc. The Asuro comes with several examples with Makefiles. I simply copied one and started extending it. A little optional USB-IR adapter is used to connect to the Asuro (an RS232 one is included with the Asuro kit, but I don’t have any RS232 ports). The whole setup works pretty well from the command line, especially considering that it’s a completely different setup than the Arduino IDE.

Anyway, back to the design of the TwitLEDs robot.

The challenge was to find a simple way to make this robot drive around without bumping into things. The Asuro has a row of switches at the front, but these are not very reliable, and besides: bumping and stopping and turning would mess up the LED strip being “printed” on the glow-in-the-dark paint.

So instead, we mounted a Sharp 10..80 cm distance sensor on top. It’s very easy to read out, since it produces an analog voltage, inversely related to the distance of objects in front of it.

The logic for collision avoidance is crude, but sufficiently effective: turn more and more right as you get nearer to an obstacle. The on-board LED turns from off to green to yellow to red as the distance decreases, so it’s easy to see what the robot is doing. I’ve tweaked it so that when it drives straight towards an obstacle, then turning will be quick enough to never bump into that obstacle.

Here’s the completed unit, with the Sharp proximity sensor on a little expansion board at the front, and the LED blinker glued to the side of the battery pack – the LEDs hover 1 .. 2 mm above the ground:

Dsc 1741

Myra’s idea was to have this thing drive inside a more or less circular “fence” made of corrugated cardboard. The whole area inside the fence will be made of some panels, covered with 3 layers of glow-in-the-dark paint.

There is a flaw in the current design, in that the robot can only evade an obstacle by turning to the right. If it approaches a wall obliquely from the right, it will do the wrong thing and drive straight into the wall. But we’re hoping that as long as it doesn’t over-correct, and by sending it off in a tangent, it will keep adjusting slightly to the right as it drives around and around in “sort of” circles.

More tests and tweaks will no doubt be needed.

But as it is, this thing really seems to stay out of trouble. We can let it loose in the room and it’ll veer to the right whenever it comes near an obstacle. Sometimes it veers to far, though. Again, I hope a more controlled “arena” will be sufficiently simple to keep it going.

When the robot does bump into its front switches, it turns both motors off, blinks for 10 seconds, and then starts off again. Time enough to pick it up and aim it in a different direction.

So that’s it. An autonomous unit with two independent computers, IR distance sensing, a short range IR link, and the JeeNode with a longer-range wireless RF link. Even including a JeeLink on the laptop side, the cost of all this was only slightly over €100.

Tomorrow, some pictures + movies. Gives me time to finish the Twitter link, and then on to the grand finale!

(Reminder: one week left for the June special in the Jee Labs shop!)

  1. A dual core bot :-)

    You could always throw a bit of random into its collision avoidance. That should stop it getting stuck in a repetitive pattern and trapped. Although this isn’t going to be an issue in its little controlled paddock environment.

    Can’t wait to see it in movie action.

    Oh, and as you’re not so keen on inflicting a graffiti bicycle on your neighbourhood, I found a smaller, cleaner dot matrix project… A lego printer!

  2. Just an idea to make this even more impressive: Replace the wall by a hidden coil that goes around the arena and put AC at a certain frequency on it that can be detected by another coil on the robot. Or even two coils on the robot, so that it can tell if it is better to turn left or right.

    BTW, if the coil in the base plate only needs a few windings, it can easily be done with a single loop of a cable (e.g. ribbon cable) that gets its wires connected in series so that each of them makes up a winding in the coil.

    • Ooh, that would indeed be neat. We won’t be able to do it in this round (project is basically done, see this video), but everything that does things without wires is cool in my book: magic!

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