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.

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.