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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.

LabVIEW Robotics binding to Gostai’s Urbi? February 3, 2010

Posted by emiliekopp in industry robot spotlight.
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I was checking the incoming links to my blog the other day and found the following:


It’s a product suggestion forum for Gostai users. Someone must have read my post featuring the connectivity between MSRDS and LabVIEW Robotics and thought a similar example for LabVIEW and Gostai could be useful. He/she is petitioning Gostai developers to add LabVIEW connectivity to their “liburbi,” which currently interfaces Gostai’s scripting language, UrbiScript, to languages like C++, Java and Matlab. Why not add LabVIEW to the list? 🙂

I’m still trying to figure out why that might be useful…

Both LabVIEW and Urbi are viable platforms for programming robots. Both lend tools for parallel programming. Both are intended to be open and flexible programming platforms that allow to developers to integrate with the enormous amount of robotics tools out in the industry. Both have very similar mantras. Case in point: here’s how NI has stated its claim on the robotics industry:

The robotics industry needs a software development platform that is what Microsoft BASIC was to the PC industry… A challenge for many roboticists is finding a modular, reusable software development platform that caters to all of the necessary disciplines of robotics.

Here’s a similar take from Gostai on their website:

Like PCs in the early 80’s, today’s robots are still incompatible in term of software. There is yet no standard way to reuse one component from one robot to the other, which is needed to have a real software industry bootstraping. And most attempts have been failing to provide tools genuinely adapted to the complex need of robot programming.

Both of these statements support what Bill Gates had proposed in his technology outlook article in Scientific American.

Needless to say, we’re all on the same page. So where do NI and Gostai differ? From a  high-level, it looks like Gostai is targeting researchers and hobbyists while LabVIEW Robotics is targeting more industrial-grade robotics development. But what is it about Urbi that could be useful for LabVIEW developers and vice versa? Why would it be useful for these two languages to talk to each other? It seems as though they attempt to accomplish the same things.  Without much first-hand experience with Urbi, I’ve hypothesized a scenario:

Urbi has great examples for controlling robot hardware platforms, like the Sony Aibo, LEGO NXT, and Robotis Bioloid. Assuming you’re not designing your own custom hardware platform, these examples should get you up  and running quickly.

But, let’s say you are building your own hardware platform, where you are selecting the specific motors, sensors and physical model. You are not confined to the physical model of the commercial robot platforms like the NXT and iCreate. Urbi’s library of specific hardware connectivity may not be as extensive. On the other hand, LabVIEW offers hundreds of drivers for commercial actuators and sensors. Perhaps someone could develop algorithms in Urbi and then use LabVIEW to easily connect, communicate and control their hardware.

Just a thought. Anyone is free to chime in an offer additional thoughts or scenarios.

Without knowing much about how the two can help each other, I went ahead and voted on the idea and I encourage anyone else to do the same. I mean, why not? Like I said in regards to MSRDS, the more connectivity we have between development tools, the more sharing and reuse developers have with their code. The more the better is what I say.

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.