Hack Space Robotics Development Platform

A big problem with “intelligent” robotics today is that hackers put so much time into making the hardware chassis for their robots that when they’ve gone through all that effort they don’t even begin to get to the interesting software stuff.

Now by “intelligent” I mean robots that have some higher level purpose as opposed to following a line, avoiding light or sweeping the floor(badly), I mean things like giving a tour of a community center, serving drinks during parties or even guarding the place.

The restored UMI RTX 100+ arm

The restored UMI RTX 100+ arm

As we were donated the UMI RTX 100 arm last year, I thought why not put together a relatively sophisticated robotics platform that will allow more software inclined hackers (myself included) to write interesting applications for it. Unfortunately the arm was free for a good reason, it was sitting in someone’s garden shed for the past decade and has seen some corrosion so I spent a few months (on and off) restoring it, and unfortunately the circa 1986 control board is next to useless as the light erasable rom chips have lost their contents. The good news is that mechanically the arm is now it top condition and as for the control board, today this can be replaced with an Arduino Mega and a few motor drivers (on their way from China!), what better way to learn how these things are made.

The plan was to fix it up and mount it on a mobile platform, I though originally to source a tracked platform with differential drive, but it turns out one of the other Hackspacers (Hipster) got hold of a mobility scooter, no differential drive, rear will drive, passive front steering. What was simplified in hardware just got that much more complicated to handle in software (no more on the spot turns!)

Former a mobility scooter base

Former a mobility scooter base

So hardware considerations aside, I’ve chosen for the software glue that keeps the system together to be ROS, the robotic operating system that unfortunately isn’t used as much in the hacker community as it ought to be. IMO that is due to it’s complexity, but then this is this project may help change that! ROS has many very useful features, like being distributed, able to handle the modeling, particle cloud mapping, kinematics, motion planning, mapping, visualization, simulation in a very modular approach.

What will it run on? Well last year myself and some other guys on the Raspberry Pi forum managed to get most of the ROS to compile on the Pi, and although it’s underpowered it can deal with mid layer stuff very easily, just don’t make it run RVIZ(the visualisation package)! ROS is a meta-operating system and can run on multiple machines, as such Pi is good place to start with view to expand the computational oomph once needed. I’ve had previous exposure to ROS and one of my previous projects the Autonomous Rover Project used a similar setup but was MUUUUCH simpler compared to this beast.

The main sensor in the system  is of-course the Kinect, which is the defacto standard for affordable 3D mapping of the environment. Realistically the system will also need bumper sensors and probably UltraSound/IR rangers to get a more complete and reliable perception of it’s surrounding environment

So a simplified system diagram would look something like this:

Preliminary layout of the system

Preliminary layout of the system

As it stands we’ve got a basic 3d robot model up (URDF) and are experimenting with planning as part of ROS’s new (you gotta …? :) Move-IT! software that munges the model into workable kinematic models and planning groups. Here’s a quick snapshot of the rather naked robot arm joints.

A 3d articulated model of the arm

A 3d articulated model of the arm

I’ll be sure to update this page as more progress is made but till then you can refer to the London HackSpace wiki page for the HSRDP

If you want to see the bot being worked on then it may be worth popping in to one of the HackSpace’s open evenings that run every Tuesday.

Using RFID cards for access control to tools

A few months ago I got involved in a access control project for tools at HackSpace. The project is interesting because it alleviates a few of the problems at a community workshop, mainly misuse of tools. Up till now we’ve been using plain old keys that only people who’ve been through the training are supposed to know the location of (yes yes a very fool proof method I know :)

So we decided to use the oyster cards, that we already use to get physcial access to the space and expand on that as most londoners have on oyster card anyway.

Here’s a brief overview of the system. Of-course ACnodes themselves are more complex but as was concentrating on writing the back-end, I put a tad more detail there

You can find more details on the project link.

And lastly, Sol, who’s working on the ACnodes themselves has recorded a quick video showing the node connected to our 3-in1 lathe (the more dangerous kind) which shows it reading the card and checking with the central server if the card owner is allowed to use it.

Uadd: Why Uadd?


Uadd: Why Uadd?

What the London tech startup community can learn from the Hackspace community

Techhub meets Hackspace

What the London tech startup community can learn from the Hackspace community
For about the last half a year I have been a member of hacker/maker group hackspace here in London, and have been involved with the local startup community for just over a year as a member of TechHub – a co-working space for start-ups. In that time TechHub has grown from what was essentially a floor of a smallish office building with what seemed like around 40-50 people at any given time to being the biggest occupant at the Google Campus London, which is claimed to be the the largest purpose built space for start-ups in Europe. Hackspace, on the other hand, is in a much more modest business center taking two workshop units and has just this week crossed over the 500 membership threshold.
TechHub is a great provider of working space, something a lot of startups really need yet can rarely afford to rent, however I have found it to lack the community atmosphere and knowledge sharing approach that Hackspace has. Sure, there is the occasional passing around of contacts or a pointer in the right direction for a specific problem, but there isn’t that attitude of sitting down and helping each other out with technical (or business) stuff. I think a lot of that is due to the way the two organisations are managed and run. TechHub is a company that employs full time staff (some of whom are really helpful I should add) whereas hackspace is a member run organisation using the Once Click Orgs, where the members are responsible for the running of the space in a democratic fashion and trustees can intervene resolve issues where necessary. I think the member run aspect encourages people to step forward and participate; this week, for example, one of the members who is a computer graphics whiz, organised a workshop to teach people about different aspects of CG and computer vision. There are actually a lot of workshops being organised by members. They even setup the glastonbury equivalent of hacking with their EMF camp at the end of august; a three day event full of hacking all focused on sharing knowledge and having fun.
Surely a lot of knowledge is shared in incubators and accelerators, but even then a lot of that knowledge is not peer disseminated. And quite frankly there are nowhere near enough of them to meet the demands of early stage startups in London which in turn is hampering the success rate.
What London would benefit from is a member run organisation like Hackspace but focused on a slightly different kind of hacking, business hacking. And given the tools available through such OneClickOrgs now is as good a time as ever to start something like that…
Watch. This. Space.

Getting youngsters interested in coding!

Code Club LogoScratch and Arduino

For about 3 months now I’ve been toying around with the idea of developing a club that would give youngsters the option to get stuck in with coding and robotics.

But as usually happens my main line of work came in the way, but I was pleasantly surprised when a friend forwarded me a news article about an initiative to get young children coding, and appropriately named the Code Club ! They aim to register as a charity so are asking for donations to help them reach the £5,000 needed to do so. They then plan do develop a 12 week course to introduce programming to youngsters through a very visual coding environment called Scratch.

I did my (unscientific) research on the topic and from what I’ve been able to gather it’s just not that exciting for most kids to get stuff moving on the screen. They need to be able to touch and play with what they are making.

But the idea of using a visual environment is a great one, so being a robotics enthusiast I realised that making a basic robot that can move about, make some sounds and possibly draw with a pen would have a significant effect on their interest in the activity. Doing some more searching I found out about the existence of S4A (stands for Scratch for Arduino) and as Arduino is a very simple tool for this it makes sense to build a robot platform around that! Some of the work in getting a hardware platform has already been done within the Scratch-IO project, all that’s missing is a ready-made hardware bot platform to plug it in.

Scratch for Arduino in use

The key thing here is that the platform needs to be simple enough for teachers and parents to set up for their kids to play. The exciting thing is that with the launch of Raspberry Pi the whole set-up is significantly cheaper and can potentially be done in a living room in-front of the TV.

I now have a new project on my hands, so if anyone has any ideas about what the bot should look like, what features it should have, then please add your thoughts in the comments below

London Hackspace public day

London Hackspace logo  So yesterday I’ve decided to finally visit the London Hackspace that I’ve been meaning to visit for quite some time.

For those that do not what hackspaces are (myself included until a few weeks ago), these are basically organisations which offer members space (i.e. a workshop of sorts) equipped with tools, materials and equipment that members buy or salvage. I went there because I’ve been interested in robotics since I before I learned to solder, so before I was 4 (insert your “in Soviet Russia” joke here ….)! There are some peeps there interested in robotics but there is no groups like the other Bio/Music/Gadget/etc groups but I did notice the Imperial College Robotics Society sticker on one of the laptops (but no sign of owner). My hope is that I can start going though the list of my project ideas that I’ve not been able to do at home due to lack of space or equipment, mainly because robotics requires electronics, programming and mechanics which means short of a tuning fork I usually need most workshop equipment!

While there I met two Industrial Design MA students (Lea and Jason), Jason was looking around at the router and introduced me to Lea who had a funky arts project and was looking for someone to do a basic micro-controller(a.k.a. uC) circuit for her to control 6 servos on inputs from a clock and a soil humidity sensor. I’ve decided to help her out as it would be a good project to remind myself of uC programming and electronics :)

I have to say that leaving the HackSpace I was very pleased that places like this exist in UK, I’ve been losing faith in UK’s interest in robotics as a hobby especially when compared to the interest across the pond and in mainland europe.

And now I’m looking forward to the hacking I’m going to get done :)

Busmapper @ TechHub demo night

Busmapper logo

What it is: BusMapper is simple web and mobile app that finds the best bus routes for you in London. It’s as simple as pointing the start and end on a map. It will also show you live arrival info for buses given any bus-stop.

Who is it for: Anyone taking a bus in London, and practically everyone who has to take a nightbus!

My view: I often use the buses as I live in Greenwich, so for me this app has proven to be very useful. Ability to look up the live bus information is a great addition. It’s something you’d think the TFL website would do, but Busmapper is much easier to use, especially on the mobile.

TechHub tech showcase day

TechHubYesterday Techhub  opened its doors to the public where seven start-ups presented their work in a social and friendly setting. VirginMedia, who were the main sponsors of the event showcasing  their 1.5 Gbps broadband internet connection, were definitely a catalyst for the startup development at TechHub and in the “Silicon Roundabout” area. There was quite a buzz about the place and it was great to see a two way communication process. It wasn’t like a typical “expo” where the stall keepers try to sell you their business; they were genuinely keen on finding out about what I do and my thoughts on their work.

So my thoughts on  the seven startups, in no particular order, were:



 Growington is an early startup all about sharing  information on growing produce and at present it’s limited to listing what fruit, veg and herbs you grow and where your “patch” is located. You can browse around and  see what others are growing near you (no “weed” jokes please!). What did strike me is that having spent my early childhood in rural areas we took this sharing of produce for granted. Sure enough that was back in the USSR days (I was born in Kyrgyzstan) but still, it’s astonishing to see how the lifestyle around me has changed in under 20 years. What I see Growington doing is using the social Web 2.0 movement to get back to how we used to do things and is a great example of how technology is bringing us together, after seemingly pulling us apart. Speaking to Darren the Growington team has a lot of ideas on how to take the company forward, from letting people trade their seeds and produce to acting as a user knowledge-base for growing plants at home. Now where are those free seeds  I got earlier…? 



A concept I was looking into a few weeks back on the android app market. In one sentence it’s social car pooling* for the masses. Basically if you need to go to say Oxford, you put the journey in and see if anyone is going on the dates you are going and maybe get/offer a lift and maybe share the cost. It also has a dedicated section for festivals and events which is a great feature. Back when I was looking for an android app that does car pooling I found only a German one which unfortunately had very few users in the UK so it’s great to see someone pushing the concept here!

* “social car pooling” – For those that follow my tweets no doubt saw me embarrass myself by missing out the last letter “L”


yReceipts YReceipts enables retailers to empower their POS(Point of Sale) terminals to email you the receipt instead of (or alongside) giving you a hardcopy. Made easier by the fact that you can use your phone to present the retailer with your own personalised barcode. I’d personally use it given the option. Not only for the green credentials but also because it makes expenses easier to manage. And also remember those times you couldn’t get a warranty because you couldn’t find the receipt?


OpenSignalMapsEver had a bad quality call because of the signal and started to try and move about the room/street to try and get a better signal? Well chances are this app from staircase3 will help point you in the right direction, quite literally! Although the majority of the user-base are technophiles like me, the data that the opensignalmaps android app gathers can be used to make a better decision on what network to go to by showing you reception areas for different mobile phone operators in a given area. Its big benefit, however, is in areas where the cell network density is much smaller than here in the UK and carriers need to make careful decisions where to put the transceiver towers. 



This is a simple but great idea; essentially a service whereby you can buy home cooked food from local chefs, the web 2.0 way! You get to leave your reviews of the food and as the chefs have to have a food standards hygiene certificate it’s likely to be safe. I know quite a few South Asian and Chinese chefs sell their food this way already so I can easily see them benefiting from more clientèle!


PoraOraIn their own words “Pora Ora is a free online 3D virtual world, where children in the primary school age range can learn, interact and play games”. It did strike me as the most polished and complex of the offerings I saw yesterday. It’s great to see developments in the education space as I see kids less and less interested in the world around them. You’d think this area would get more investment but alas that’s not the case it seems, which is crazy really. I think even Sir Allan hinted in the Apprentice final that there is little money in schools, especially so with the budget cuts. I’m personally going to see if I can get my speaking nephews and nieces abroad to use it, could be great as an English language learning tool I think!


TubeTapTubeTap is an iPhone application that helps you get refunds from TFL when the trains are more than 15 minutes late. It’s quite simple to use: tell it where to and from you are going, tap in at the start and tap out at the end, it matches this to how long the journey is supposed to take according to TFL and helps you apply for the refund. Very niche, but a useful app for those that have to use the Jubilee line! Back when I used to work in Canary Wharf my colleague used to have a pile of refund slips for all the times he was delayed; he’d have benefited from the app greatly. Too bad his main phone was a corporate blackberry with app restrictions on it. I’ll definitely give it a go if and when it comes out on the android platform!