Monday, May 23, 2016

Robot Sumo with Lego Mindstorms

Two deadly, plastic opponents face off.

Their beeps and whirs are drowned out by the deafening cheer echoing in the elementary school auditorium.

Two robots enter the sumo ring. Only one emerges, victorious. The other? Tipped over, out of the ring, parts scattered, wheels spinning in futility...

The culmination of many weeks of tinkering, teams from the Robot Club at my girl's elementary school faced off against teams from two other schools in a Lego Mindstorms Sumo death match (ok, they didn't call it a death match... but I sure will).

For several weeks I came in every week to help the kids design, build, and code their robots and it was incredibly fun and rewarding. Turns out 5th graders are really smart. The kids had no trouble with the LabView-style graphical programming and had working robots quickly.

There were a few physical design issues. Teachable moments in the area of physics were plentiful. Center of gravity. How caster wheels work. Traction, friction. Stuff like that. In the end our school fielded some very competitive robots!

One team started a few weeks behind but was able to build a tracked robot (below) based on some instructions I dug up. They fought against time for weeks and finally, in true robot experimenter fashion, got their code working only days before the competition.

I built one, also. And battled the kids. And lost more matches than I won!

I guess I am not smarter than a 5th grader.

But I definitely couldn't be more proud of these kids for sticking to it, never forgetting to have fun, and building some awesome sumo bots.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Sparkfun AVC 2016

Sparkfun announced that the 2016 Autonomous Vehicle Competition will be happening in September this year!

That's good. It'll be cooler than summer, almost certainly sunny and a pleasant 70-80 degrees. Plus we have loads of extra time to procrastinate. Win-win!

The big news is they're making some kind of addition to the AVC involving -- if the pictorial hint is to be believed -- little kids driving around in home made go-karts?!? Or... I really don't know...

What does it mean!?!?!?
Maybe autonomous road racing? That'd be sweet. Maybe kids will race with bots? Maybe robot kids will... nevermind.

What about me? Though life has been leaving boot prints on my backside for the better part of the last year, IF the AVC additions are super-interesting, Data Bus may have to make a comeback.

I haven't forgotten about rovers. In fact, I've been working on some Rover-related goodies in the meanwhile...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Chinese Robot Kit

Kids can build robots, sure, but... which robot kit should be their first?

Lego Mindstorms? Pololu 3pi or Zumo? What would you recommend?

Every time I show my robots to elementary school kids that are really interested in building their own, I realize that I can't recommend a good starter robot kit. Why not?

I feel prospective roboteers deserve a kit that is low cost, can do two or more interesting things, is expandable, and is accompanied both by quality learning material and programming software that younger kids can understand and use.

So, I want to roll my own kit. But, where to start? Maybe... here:

I searched for a low-cost chassis and found vendors on AliExpress selling a robot kit.

It includes an Arduino clone, sensor shield, battery holder, motor driver / regulator board, motors, encoder discs, wheels, caster, and an acrylic chassis.

All for a ridiculously low price. Was it any good? Read on...