The trouble with hobbyist-level robot hardware

There really hasn't been as much progress in hobbyist-level hardware in the past twenty years as there should have been.
Computing has advanced enormously, yet most hobbyist robots are still using Polaroid sonars, analog R/C servos, and Basic STAMPs from the 1980s.
First, R/C servos. They're still used mostly as output-only devices. Although it's possible to tap into them and get out position and torque information, this is rarely done. Rod Brooks did it at MIT for his insect robots, but that doesn't seem to have trickled down. Some of the newer servos have CPUs in them, and reasonably good ones, like Atmel CPUs. Some can be reprogrammed. That's something to work on - find an R/C servo that can be reprogrammed into communicating bidirectionally in some intelligent way.
Sonars. We have enough compute power today to do serious sonar processing, like submarines do. But mostly, people are still just pinging with 30 degree beam widths, just like the 1980s. That's disappointing. We should have bat sonar by now.
Motor controllers with positional feedback generally are still too expensive, as are motors with encoders. Acroname has some cheap encoders, but they're not well integrated with motors.
We do have cheap cameras, and more is being done with them, so there is progress. But you still can't buy Aibo-grade components off the shelf.
            John Nagle
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John Nagle wrote:
I'll skip most of your comments and jump straight to:

Sure you can. It's simply a question of money and interfacing. COTS parts get cheaper the more people buy them. The fact that these parts are still expensive [in a usable form] is because not enough people are buying them. This suggests that hobbyists are uninterested or incapable of building the heavy signal-processing applications you describe. If you want a 3Mp CMOS image sensor, you can buy a camera containing the part and cannibalize it, or you can use a computer (or SBC) to interface to it. Apparently not enough people are doing this.
In the same vein, many kids build go-carts. Few kids build fully functional Lamborghini replicas.
By the way, do you have an anechoic chamber for calibrating your side-scan sonar? Have you built a laser scanning video system? Does your latest robot have a complete strapdown inertial guidance platform in it (you can buy a very complete one for about EUR1500)? Have you considered cannibalizing a dual-tech PIR to use as a radar rangefinder?
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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

Well, actually I ran one of the DARPA Grand Challenge teams, Team Overbot. We did have a complete inertial guidance platform. (The three-gyro, three accelerometer units are getting cheaper very rapidly.) And I did build a LIDAR around 1992, but it was a dud; for the Grand Challenge we used a SICK LMS, which is ten year old technology but very ruggedly built.
What strikes me is how much cheaper high-end gear became during the three years of the Grand Challenge. Precision GPS/INS/compass/odometer combos were $100K when we started, and are now down to $6K. One of the Trimble guys told me their goal is to drop the price by an order of magnitude every five years.
At the IC level, part cost and availability has improved enormously. What we're not seeing is comparable progress at the board, subsystem, and system design level. Acroname is trying, model helicopter guidance is making real progress, and some of the robot toys are quite well designed, but the mid-level components aren't there yet.
                John Nagle
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John, what are these? What do you envision?
dpa
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dpa wrote:

He said: "What we're not seeing is comparable progress at the board, subsystem, and system design level".
I envision something like CAN, a universal communication language and interface for robotic components that's cheap enough for the simplest sensor and powerful/fast enough for everything, perhaps short of video. The idea being that every robotic brain would have an interface and language/OS that understands it, so you don't spend your time fiddling with squillions of little interface details, tracking down ground bounce communication problems because your SPI lines are too long, etc, but can simply get on with the job of making your device do what you want it to.
I reckon it could be built on multi-drop RS-485 more cheaply than CAN though...
Clifford Heath.
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Clifford Heath wrote:

Clifford:
I am working on another set of robotics modules based on microcontrollers with embedded UART's and CAN Bus physical layer. Here's the URL:
<http://gramlich.net/projects/rb2/index.html
It is definitely not ready for prime time, but we are starting to see some solid progress. We are reliably sending data over the bus at .5Mbps. Yeah, there could be more documentation, but there are only so many hours in the day.
Enjoy,
-Wayne
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Looks neat, I think -- it'd be great if you could spare 15 minutes to type up an overview of what the heck it is, and maybe post some photos. A newbie like me can't really make heads or tails of it, except that it seems to be a set of modules that work together somehow. That in itself sounds good, so I encourage you to keep it up!
Cheers, - Joe
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Joe Strout wrote:

Joe:
Fair enough request.
The concept behind RoboBricks2 bus is to strike a balance between ease of use *and* ease of implementation. The concept is that new users would feel confortable plugging together modules designed by other people, but more experienced robotics people should feel pretty comfortable designing a new module that plugs into the bus as well.
The 5 most heavily discussed options were:
1) I2C 2) SPI 3) UART on top of a) RS422, b) RS485, or c) CAN bus physical layer 4) CAN bus full stack.
The desire for a high noise immunity bus pretty much ruled out I2C (1) and SPI (2). We liked full CAN bus (4), but it was viewed as difficult to implement modules for since it basically needed a pretty complete set of hardware support inside the microcontroller along with some substantial software support. The advantage of using a UART (3) of UART's is that they are both ubiquitous and easy to use. Doing UART support in assembly code is still relatively easy; whereas CAN bus support is not. Thus, UART (3) won out over full CAN bus (4). The choice of RS422, RS485, vs. CAN bus physical layer was based on ease of module implementation. The CAN bus transceivers do not need to have a pin that specifies whether your module is transmitting or not.
The bus is currently using 10 conductor insulation displacement connectors (i.e. 2x5 headers.) The headers are polarized to prevent plugging in backwards. Again, there was a huge amount of discussion about connectors, and the choice of 2x5 connectors was based on ease of use and availability. There are actually two power buses on the ribbon cable -- one regulated 5V for the logic supply and one 6V-12V for direct connection to a battery. Devices that have nasty power surges are required to keep their surges off the logic bus via opto-isolators; this includes motors, servos, Sharp GP2D12's, etc.
The RoboBricks2 bus hardware design is fixed and will not be changed. If you do not like it, please feel free to design your own bus and modules that plug into it. Honestly, I will not be offended.
The software architecture is pretty simple master/slave. Each slave module has a unique 8-bit address on the bus. A master sends out module address select byte, followed by a number of commands to query the slave module. There can be multiple masters on the same bus, but only one can be active at a time. When one master is done, it contacts the next master and hands off control to it. There is no collision detection hardware or software.
The bus is currently running at .5M bits per second. It is felt that this is fast enough for everything but pumping video frames. If people want to do video, they will have to use some other bus.
While the summary above took longer than 15 minutes to type in, it should provide enough of an overview.
With regards to pictures, the only two pictures I could find of a robot that uses RoboBricks2 technology is at Camp Peavy's site:
<
http://www.camppeavy.com/sitebuilder/images/06june77-260x354.jpg
<
http://www.camppeavy.com/sitebuilder/images/06june76-260x176.jpg
The pictures are too small to be of any real use. I'll put posting of some pictures on our "to do" list. It will take a week or two before it happens.
Later,
-Wayne
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This sounds really cool. I'm still not sure what a CAN bus is, but I believe I understand that UART basically means a serial bus. So you have a bunch of modules that can be plugged together with minimal fuss, sharing power and communications over the RoboBricks2 bus.
I really like the idea of more modular, plug-and-play components. Apart from Mindstorms, I haven't seen anyone else to do this very well -- and Mindstorms is rather limited (as a controller, anyway). If you can do something similar but with more options, and (ideally) with a lower entry barrier (in cost), I think you'll have a big hit.

Yes, and I appreciate it (and hopefully there are others here who do, too). Will these be commercially available, or just public designs, or what?
Best, - Joe
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Wayne C. Gramlich wrote:

That's the idea - the symmetrical connector and power+logic arrangement is useful. It's almost a shame that it won't "just work" either way actually! That'd be cute.
I would have made the software protocol a little more sophisticated, adding a discovery (devices + capabilities) protocol and the possibility of sending short packets rather than just 9-bit bytes. With packets, you can drop to 8-bit byts to make coding easier too.
Consider that it's the software pluggability as well as the hardware that matters. There was a good protocol discussed here a while back of which I can't remember the name. The kind of thing you need is to be able to say "identify yourself, #47" and get back a descriptor from a standard set like "H-Bridge, up to 3A, with current sense return data", "servo, 270 degrees range, 180 degrees/sec, 4Nm max torque", or "compass, 3 degrees resolution".
But basically, all it needs is a bit more definition and some vendor willing to make a cheap range of modified servos, sensors and a CPU board (or adapter H/W), and you could get the platform established and moving.
Clifford Heath.
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Here's a perspective from a newbie (well, really more of a wanna-be) to the hobby, FWIW.
First, controllers: I've seen a lot of alternatives to the Basic STAMPs coming out lately. Pololu has their great Orangutan boards, LEGO has the new NXT, other people are using OOPICs or whatnot. I also carry around a lot of computing power in the form of my PalmPilot -- I know a few people have made these into removable robot controllers, though I haven't seen as much of this as I would expect. Also, there is the XBC, which is a really amazing controller.
Almost all of this is too expensive for me, though -- if it's not under $100, I can't get it past the budget committee (i.e. my wife) right now. Perhaps this is useful data -- there are certainly price-sensitive hobbyists like me, and much of the current hardware doesn't sell to them. Conversely, there are hobbyists who are largely price-insensitive (I know several in my local club), and for that market, lowering the prices just means leaving money on the table.
At the same time, the folks who are price-insensitive are also often those with the least ability to put together their own PC boards, power supplies, and other such hackery required by many of the cheaper devices. So robotics suppliers are in the awkward position that, to reach the (probably much larger) casual robotics market, they have to simultaneously sell a more-complete device and sell it for less money.

I didn't know it was possible at all, except for the new digital servos, which are way too expensive. Would you have any references on how to do this? Sounds pretty neat.

Indeed. Wouldn't that basically turn an ordinary R/C servo into a digital servo, of the sort used by the Robo-One-style robots?

That's interesting. I'm currently working on a laptop bot, which will have plenty of processing power, as you say. I'm also a software engineer, and probably up to the task of writing code for any algorithm I understand. But I don't know what algorithms you'd use to extract more data from a sonar echo -- again, references would be appreciated.

I think back-EMF is pretty cheap, though to do it at high speed may require a FPGA, like the XBC. But I too have been surprised at how hard it is to find decent position encoders for a reasonable price, given that it seems like such a simple problem.
FWIW, the new NXT motors have built-in encoders with 1-degree resolution, and cost about $18. However, I don't know how you would control one of these except from the NXT controller.

Well, that's not necessarily a bad thing -- it lets you mix and match your motors and your encoders, even getting motors from nontraditional sources like junked cars or whatever. I do agree that integrated encoders would be a lot easier, though.

What's the difference between the Aibo components and standard cameras? I'm planning to put a USB camera on my bot (maybe two, someday), and see what I can do with it. Vision is another thing that's probably better done with some pre-processing in a FPGA (again like XBC), but I'll have to make do with software. I expect to be able to do color tracking, and maybe motion detection. If I expend a lot of effort, I may be able to get it to find people and faces in its view. Anything else you think I should be shooting for?
Best, - Joe
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I think its not so much that new tech isnt available or involve a cost parameter as perhaps the level of creative integration. The actual I/O devices old or new simply end up doing the same applications over and over. Newcomers often follow the crowd (published books on the subject)or try and utilize the plug and play methodology. I work "out of the box" on new ways for sensor implementation most builders might think unlikely, as well as actuator/motor control devices. I also build from scratch in both circuitry and mechanical part fabrication, both unavailable to many builders newcomer or not. It stands to reason you work with what you have of can afford to buy. Also, I really dont think information is really shared much between builders. We all dont write books or publish what we learn and use, and many just rely on written resources of those who do/have. Lots of people here ask questions, or propose new ideas, but rarely do you see a thread offer start to finish information on a unique process.(unfortunate!)
Mark
Joe Strout wrote:

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This conversation is pointless. You are correct that hobby robots aren't as cool as they should be, but you change that by building cool robots, not by bitching about it on usenet. I will offer my theory, however.
Lots of cool technology could be cheaply available for hobby robotics -- machine vision, lidar, advanced sonar, good actuators, fast computers, etc. But none of it is because there isn't a big enough demand for making it cheap and hobbyist-friendly. The reason there isn't demand for it is the result of a cultural change in the u.s. over the last fifty years. It used to be that people looked at a childen's chemistry kit and thought "teaching tomorrow's scientists". Now they look at it and think "personal injury liability". Technology has changed from cool things you build at home to shiny things you buy at radio shack. The culture of experimentation has taken another nosedive lately now that homemade technology is generally assumed to consist of meth labs and ieds.
-chris.
John Nagle wrote:

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snipped-for-privacy@gmail.com wrote:

I thought it was pointless as well, and I wasn't going to respond. The idea behind hobbyist ANYTHING is low-cost. Anyone can spend money if they have it. The fact that products with more capabilities and feature are indeed available is not an indictment of the progress made, but an implicit statement about how the nicer things in life are more expensive. Wow, what a concept!

Absolutely correct. Plus, parents are just as apt these days to buy a virtual chemistry set, which just isn't the same.
-- Gordon
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Who's a hobbiest, what is a hobby, and why should it change?
How do you happen to mix hobbiest and progress as in any way linked?
There hasn't been much change in model railroading hardware in the past 50 years, should there have been there too?
(Interesting subject, none the less.)
--
Randy M. Dumse
www.newmicros.com
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From a wikipedia quote on Schumpeter, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joseph_Schumpeter "Schumpeter starts in The Theory of Economic Development with a treatise of circular flow which, excluding any innovations and innovative activities, leads to a stationary state. The stationary state is, according to Schumpeter, described by Walrasian equilibrium. The hero of his story, though, is, in fine Austrian fashion, the entrepreneur.
"The entrepreneur disturbs this equilibrium and is the cause of economic development, which proceeds in cyclic fashion along several time scales."
The trouble with hobbyist-level robot hardware isn't the hobbyist's. The trouble is with the entrepreneurs. Apparently no one clever enought has found a way to "disturb the equilibrium" such that they would perfer new hardware due to available performance.
For me, this is a real kick in the pants, because I am one of those entrepreneurs trying.
I offered a board IsoPod(TM) that was 20x the power of the Basic Stamp at about a 1.4x price margin. So the hobbyist could get 11x the performance for his money.
But I made an active decision to help them along, to not offer Basic, because from our previous experience selling Basic, we'd found the customers who were most lost and confused, the projects that were most often in trouble of not being finished, where the ones using Basic. So I decided not to offer a Basic.
From the feed back I get, apparently this is why I was not a more successful entrepreneur "disturbing the equilibrium". Many object to my IsoMax(TM) state machine based language on top of a Forth substrate. It is tagged as "Forth based", even by those who prefer C, even though there are C's available for my product, and the majority avoid it.
(Thank goodness for the professionals, who have embraced the power and utility in my offering, although they were not the target of my marketing campaign!)
Now, I can take the approach of blaming the hobbyists for not using something more advanced, as it appears you do in your openning post, or I can look inward and ask why I am not a better entrepreneur for not offering what they wanted in the first place. Or at least this is the best I can make of the market to this point.
Perhaps you see whay I said "Interesting subject, none the less." I'd really like to see more discussion on this thread.
--
Randy M. Dumse
www.newmicros.com
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Don't knock yourself out. Newmicros offers great products and support. I know this even though I've never purchased or worked with your products. It's just that we the hobby people are not into serious research and developement. We just love to tinker and play. It's good that others (more professional) have found uses for you products and services. It means your on the right track. If they can keep your business going then someday us little guys will follow suit. Keep up the work. Remember nobody five years ago could have guessed at the succuss of the MP3 player when everybody in the music industry thought they where useless toys that stole money from big business. It could/can be the same for robotics.

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Randy M. Dumse wrote:

Was it the language or the type of people that prefer the language that was the cause of getting confused?

But maybe the professionals had the _expertise_ to understand and use the products and already had a useful desired outcome in mind? It doesn't really matter how good or advanced your products are if a hobbyist can't see a desired outcome why would they be interested?
In terms of off the shelf cost effective choices the only products I have found that would give me the potential to build the robot I would like is an electric wheelchair and a laptop. Anything else lacks the power to money ratio required.
But even these two items lack essential ingredients. Imagination. Programming skills. Hardware that is limited to the imaginations is severely handicapped. The limited market is for toy robots that work. Like those reptile robots or toy light seeking, line followers. Just like the train sets you mentioned. The imagination being limited to plugging off the shelf items in some configuration.
Advanced robotics which have some future potential are expensive and require advanced hardware/software skills not possessed by most people.

Your market is for those that know what to do with your products and already have the expertise to use them as a cost effective solution to their problem.
How many robotics hobbyists are of the caliber of David P. Anderson and could build that really cool two wheel balancing robot? And why can't I buy one from the local electronics shop :)

-- JC
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In My Opinion, Evolution Robotics *was* well on the way to do that. They were developing a nice following from the hobbyists that bought their ER1, and they had kick-ass customer service. They took a fairly plain robotic platform, offered it at recycled parts type price, and added the vision recognition software that was almost the Holy Grail. But then the "all important bottom line" kicked in and they abandoned what could have been a kick-ass, almost free, marketing tool (the hobbyists) for their more expensive products.
As I stated in another thread, *your* customer service has absolutely blown me away! If I am buying a part or gizmo that I am not sure I can handle or troubleshoot on my own, I will buy the more expensive part from the company with the good rep - in a heartbeat - before I will buy the cheaper one somewhere else.

In My Humble Opinion, you just hit the nail on the head. The ONLY problem with your stuff is the marketing. It's obvious you are one hell of an engineer. But if I didn't already know I needed an H-bridge I probably wouldn't have ended up on your web site. Some good "how-to" articles might be a big help. A gallery of 'bots and other gadgets built using your products would be a big boon, I think. That very gimmick brought me back to the Acroname website more than once, and I eventually started looking at their products and bought a couple.
I think the mini-sumo photo and link is a great start. A lot of the content on your web site seems to be written for a target audience that already has a good idea of what they need. If you can have some kind of "branding" device that appeals to the hobbyist and is associated with your products, that could really boost your sales and mention in the press. I've told several people to get a BoeBot kit to get started in the hobby because it has everything they need to successfully build a robot. It doesn't matter that your IsoPod is a better product than the Stamp because the guys looking for a BoeBot type kit don't even know about the IsoPod. If they stick with the hobby, and realize that the Stamp doesn't do everything they want it to do, then they will eventually go looking for something like the IsoPod. Maybe you need a "NewMicrosBot" !
The advantage Parallax has is that it has a lot of free press out there, and lots of web pages showing how someone made an automated whatzit gage sensor that sounds a horn when it's time to get out of bed and get in the boat. If you can get some of that "action" going on, I would think your products will start popping up all over the place - in technoblogs & how-to pages.
As for Forth, I fiddled with it about 20 years ago or so, and thought it was really neat. At the time, the buzz line that "forth is written in forth" intrigued the heck out of me. But I bet that 75% or more of even the die-hard C/C++ gearheads haven't even heard of it if they are younger than, say, 35 years. I would suggest some pages that explain what Forth is; where to find more info on it; and why you chose it for your product.
Personally, I like the control and closeness to the hardware that C offers.When I am building a robot that might consist of a mini-ITX mo'board; another controller gizmo to drive some servo motors; and maybe yet another little processor to manage drive motor control, I don't want to have to jump between 3 different programming languages --- even if that other language has major advantages. BUT, if I can readily see (from your website) that your particular processor board might be able to drive my H-bridges AND drive my servos, AND take commands from a PC mo'board via a serial line, etc., then I start thinking that maybe I don't need 3 separate boards that total $350, but that maybe I can use just your one gizmo that costs a bit higher than that Basic Stamp but does so much more.
Having said all of that, I have read some of the excellent advice you have given people on this newsgroup. Put that same stuff on your website, too, and - I would be spending more time on your website and probably taking a 2nd & 3rd and 4th look at that IsoPod or TinyPod, etc.
Another thought is that I have seen one guy that offers a little touchscreen & controller on eBay at a few bucks off the normal price. This seems like a great way to do some marketing. Maybe you could come up with a simple robot kit (even if you don't supply all the parts but instead have a detailed list) that you can offer? Once a few hobbyists get a taste of it, you know they will start adding grippers (maybe from Gordon!) & sensors, etc., and will be itching to show it off on your gallery pages.

Like someone else said, you have great products already, and it sounds like you are a heck of an entrepreneur, too. You just need to figure out how to get the word out. Marketing might not be your forte' so find someone who does it well. A website facelift would help, too. One thing I noticed is that when I wanted to return to the home page I had to move the cursor to the address bar and hit enter --- there should a link on every page to "go home". Also there should be a search box on every page. ( IMO )

I hope my comments are of some use to you! Others may have other opinions, but I firmly believe what I have said. Sometimes I can come across as very critical, so please know that is not my intention. I'd just like to see your great products and service get the exposure it deserves !
Sincerely, James C. Deen
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OK - this:

made
should have read like this:

made
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