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LEGO-maniacs Build a Monster Robot Chess Army June 17, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in labview robot projects, robot fun.
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I’ve always said the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT serves as a great robotics prototyping platform. Steve Hassenplug, LabVIEW programmer and king of Adult Fans of LEGO (AFOL), proves this point with his latest LEGO masterpiece: a monster-sized army of robotic chess pieces, each controlled by a MINDSTORMS NXT brick and programmed using LabVIEW.

Watching the video reveals the sophistication of the robots. Each piece not only processes individual path planning on the gigantic chess board, it also communicates with other robot chess pieces via Bluetooth to coordinate moving around the robots that are obstacles in the path of the current chess move.  All of the NXT bricks communicate with each other in addition to the host PC running the standard chess engine and the user interface, creating a robot army ready to school you in a game of chess.

Steve plans to show his chess army live-in-action at this year’s Brickworld Conference, where I’m sure there will be other interesting NXT-based creations and LEGO treasures.

For more information about Steve’s Monster Chess project, visit his team’s website.

If you have LabVIEW, you can download the free toolkit to build sophisticated programs like Steve’s Monster Chess Army with your LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT here.

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NXT AlphaRex: Meet Spykee from ERECTOR August 12, 2009

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight, robot fun.
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I first heard about this from Christian Loew, one of NI’s Systems Engineers for FPGA and CompactRIO, when he tweeted this morning about a new robot kit, released from ERECTOR, called Spykee.

Spykee is, fittingly, a spy robot, equipped with treadded rubber tracks, speaker, microphone, webcam and a WiFi card, making it a pretty interesting robot “toy.” Using the WiFi connection, you can use Spykee to make free calls on the Internet; it’s Skype 3.0 compatible. You can also use that same WiFi connection to broadcast the video taken from the onboard webcam. Hence, Spykee could make an interesting surviellance robot, perhaps even a useful pet-sitter?

The website claims you can build Spykee yourself, which I assume to mean you use ERECTOR set pieces to put him together. So then, ERECTOR releases a robot platform, equipped with WiFi and a webcam, a mobile-base and Machine Man Interface (or MMI) software, which is claimed to be available as open-source, so Do-It-Yourself-ers can potentially hack in and give Spykee a customized brain.

Sign me up.

However, I will say that ERECTOR’s Spykee is not nearly as flexible of a robot prototyping platform as the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT. Sure you can use ERECTOR pieces to give Spykee his own unique shape and appearance. But there’s no actuation beyond the motors built into the treadded base platform. So he certainly won’t have any dexterity; i.e. you can’t actuate and/or control any of the erector pieces, only the movement of the treads. With the NXT, you have access to individual motors, which can then connect to the mechanical design built with your NXT pieces. Thus, your robot could walk or roll on wheels, whichever you choose.

On the software side, Spykee comes with MMI, which is a fancy UI you can use to connect to Skype, play your MP3 playlist and spy on your pets while you’re not home. However, it doesn’t look like there’s any built in programming environment for Spykee. Thus, if you want to give him his own brain, you’re going to have to get tricky and use some other, more-traditional programming language to make function calls from the alleged open-source MMI library.

And so far, ERECTOR hasn’t provided much detail on what they’re opening up for access on Spykee. Will I have access to the IR sensor that is used for auto-parking at the charging station? Am I going to have access to the processor for on-board control or will I have to use wireless TCP commands from a PC station? Better yet, what is the actual processor on Spykee? It doesn’t look like anybody knows yet (will we ever know?)

One thing I like about the NXT is that LEGO wants to make it as easily accessible as possible. You have direct access to all sensors and actuators. You also have a choice between running your customized program, using either NXT-G or the free LabVIEW NXT Toolkit, directly on the NXT brick (which I would add uses an ARM 7 processor) or controlling your robot via BlueTooth communication from a mission control PC, thus making it possible to use practically any programming language, including NXT-G, LabVIEW, MSRS, Java, C/C++, etc.

So as a quick, high-level review, the ERECTOR Spykee looks like it could be a formidable competitor to the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT; the webcam and WiFi hardware make it particularly desirable. However, it’s still in it’s early stages of release and there is little known on how the functionality will be opened up for hacking. As such, for now I’m sticking to my NXT as a low-cost, robot prototyping platform.