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Kinect 6D Visualization in LabVIEW April 19, 2011

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The LabVIEW Kinect code keeps rolling in. I am happy to share yet another example that is available for free download.

This one is very similar to John Wu’s LabVIEW + Kinect example I shared awhile back. Karl Muecke, NI R&D engineer, shares his 6D visualization example on the NI Robotics Code Exchange.

You can view a video screen capture of the demo and download his open source code here:

https://decibel.ni.com/content/blogs/MechRobotics/2011/04/19/kinect-6d-visualization-in-labview

Snake-like robot developed by the Army – powered by LabVIEW July 28, 2010

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Check out the latest front page article on army.mil, the official page of the U.S. Army:

Army technology expands snake-robotics

The story highlights a snake-robot developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory. The robo-snake is biomemetic, meaning it maneuvers just like a real snake would, pushing off ground surfaces to propel itself. It can crawl, swim, climb or shimmy through narrow spaces while transmitting images to the Soldier operator. And it’s scalable, such that it can be built a robo-snake however large or small they’d like it to be. It’s expected to help with search-and-rescue and reconnaissance missions.

I’m sure you recognized the software on the command laptop’s screen too. Yep, that’s LabVIEW. Developers are using the graphical programming language to quickly and cost-effectively interface to the robot’s sensors and control it’s actuators. They can rapidly build and test early prototypes and ultimately deliver this dexterous robot to the field more quickly, saving lives and taxpayer dollars.

Read more about how the robot works here.

Vecna BEAR Military UGV: A Jack of All Trades July 14, 2010

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I’ve written about Vecna Robotics’ Battlefield Extraction-Assist Robot (BEAR) before and am familiar with its development process. Its design engineers used LabVIEW and NI CompactRIO to rapidly build and test early prototypes and win defense contracts.

BotJunkie recently featured a video that captures the Vecna BEAR in action. Admittedly, one can see that the actual “extraction” of military casualties still looks a bit awkward and probably needs more work. I’m sure operating a robot with so many degrees of freedom in a potentially hostile environment is extrememly difficult and requires an enormous amount of practice. Bottom line, this is definitely one of the more friendly military robots that is helping save lives.

But once you take handling an injured human out of the equation, the robot can actually serve several other purposes that may not require as much poise. For instance, the BEAR can help with more logistical tasks, like handling munitions and delivering supplies. It’s payload capacity is a whopping 500 lbs, so it could definitely help as an extra hand on the battlefield. And because of it’s dexterity, it could perform maintenance functions as well, such as inspection, decontamination and refueling. Saving time and effort allows troops to focus on the task at hand, which indirectly reduces the risk soldiers are exposed to.

So the BEAR is certainly a robotic jack-of-all-trades that could prove extremely useful when fully deployed. It’s fun to imagine full convoys of these surprisingly cute robots in the future (by the way, the video explains the cuteness factor).

ROVs: The paramedics of the Gulf June 2, 2010

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We might as well be drilling on Mars. Ever since offshore drilling in the Gulf had been approved by government, oil companies have reached record depths of operation under the ocean surface. How is this possible? Robots, of course. More specifically, Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs).

These unmanned systems are able to reach depths that are impossible to reach as humans. Since we are limited to atmospheric diving, our bodies have never ventured to depths beyond ~2,500 fsw (feet of salt water). And anyone crazy enough to make it even that far must be crammed inside a diving container like Oceaneering’s WASP.

I once had the opportunity to check one of these suits out in person when I interned at Oceaneering. Once the diving cap had been closed, I felt like I had been stuffed in a refrigerator with 2 cm of wiggle room. I cannot even fathom what it might be like to dangle in that sardine can thousands of feet underwater. Keep in mind, 80% of the Gulf’s oil, and 45% of its natural gas comes from operations in more than 1000 feet of water  – classified as “deepwater.”

ROVs, on the other hand, can withstand the pressure depth and do not require atmospheric diving conditions. These tethered robots act as our eyes, ears and hands under the sea. ROV pilots sit at mission control consoles that would make you think you’re in a video game. Pilots rely on several video feeds, joysticks, knobs, buttons and more to steer and maneuver the robot and operate its manipulators. Completing seemingly simple tasks, like turning a crank on a wellhead, is extremely tricky and requires hundreds of hours of experience and practice to master.

Fleets of ROVs have roamed the Gulf, monitoring oil well conditions, dredging sea floors to lay pipeline, and more recently, repairing/cleaning up when things go wrong.

The Gulf Oil Crisis
According to wsj.com BP now plans to try to contain the flow of oil from the leak with a lower marine riser package (LMRP), or cap. The operation involves a lot of cutting and removing of broken, tangled drilling pipe, called riser. ROV’s equipped with diamond saws and gargantuan cutting shears must trim the gnarled remains of riser that sits atop the blowout preventer. By making a clean cut, BP can make another attempt at capping the valve and siphoning the spewing oil to the surface.

However, BP officials say “there is no certainty” that the operation will work, considering a task like this has never been carried out in 5,000 feet of water. Now I’m beginning to appreciate why this entire project has the name “Deepwater Horizon.”

Teams of ROVs and pilots are now working around the clock to begin Phase 1 of the LMRP containment system. Can robots save the day? Will ROVs be our paramedics of the sea? I sure hope so. I suppose time will tell.

View a live video feed from one of the ROVs helping cap the well in the Gulf Oil Crisis

To learn more about ROV design, simulation and pilot training, you can read these technical case studies on ni.com:

FIRST Robotics Meets the President December 1, 2009

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On November 23, President Obama announced the Educate to Innovate campaign, to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The campaign will include efforts not only from the Federal Government but also from leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies to work with young people across America to excel in science and math.

“As president, I believe robotics can inspire young people to pursue science and engineering,” says Mr. Obama.

Here here!

Robotics is challenging, at times frustrating, for many reasons. As Dr. Ben Black had put it: “A roboticist has to have at minimum a working knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science / engineering and controls engineering.”

So it’s hard, to say the least. But it’s also really cool. And any young kid interested in robotics is going to get a taste of several different engineering disciplines. What better way to bring the U.S. to the top of the world-wide list in science and math education, than with robotics?

I’m obviously not the only one on this bandwagon. National Instruments invests a lot in STEM education. And so has Dean Kamen’s foundation, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST). FIRST has been a driving force in changing the perception of science and technology in highschool students, using robotics design competitions as a lure. NI has partnered with FIRST to provide the FIRST Robotics Compeition (FRC) control system, which includes a high-performance, industrial-grade real-time controller (NI donated CompactRIOs for the FRC Kit of Parts).

With the mission and success of FRC, it is no surprise that Mr. Obama introduced the Cougar Cannon, an FRC robot from Oakton Highschool. Students provided a demonstration of their robot in action, the flickering sounds of camera flashes almost deafening. Even The MythBusters crew was there, as onlookers to the Lunacy competition robot. Booya!

“I also want to keep an eye on those robots in case they try anything, ” said Obama.

Don’t worry, Mr. President. As stated in my updated version of Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics, “With Will Smith alive, no robotic apocalypse is possible.”

Here’s the full White House presentation, worth watching:

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A surprise visit – have robots taken over NI? November 24, 2009

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Ok, so now things are getting really interesting. I mentioned last week that there are rumors of a Robot Revolution happening sometime soon. Well, check out this surprise visitor who came by Building C the other day, just to chat it up with some of our employees in the lobby:

His name is Millennia. If he looks familiar, it’s because he’s cousins with a somewhat-famous robot: Paulie’s Robot, from Rocky IV. Can you see the likeness?:

He’s real name is Sico and both Sico and Millennia were created by Robert Doornick, CEO of International Robotics, Inc. He came by NI the other day to show off his latest addition to his robot family. I am told Millennia is quite the ladies man; he was a total flirt with the women who came to his visit.

But these robots do more than make surprise guest appearances in campy, 80’s movies and the lobbies of Austin tech companies. Here’s what Robert Doornick had to say about his company, International Robotics:

Our 35 year old research group has been involved in the pioneering science of Technology-to-People Behavioral Psychology. This represents the study of the interrelationships between humans and machines. Our mission as technology psychologists is to assist the robotic industry in the development of various protocols for how future intelligent machines will need to be programmed, designed and engineered in order to gain long term acceptance as they cohabit with humankind.

Interesting. Robots aiming to coexist with NI employees. I believe my suspicions are being confirmed….

When good robots go bad… November 5, 2009

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Mainstream television and film have given robots a bad rep. Many people carry the stigma that robots could turn against us, when really, they are performing tasks that are too dull, dirty and/or dangerous for humans to do on their own.

An interesting study was cited today on msnbc.com, where scientists at University of Washington warn consumers about the vulnerabilities our household robots may suffer and what kind of situations that might pose to their masters (think iRobot). I was contacted by the article’s author, Diane Mapes, to discuss the likelyhood of our household robots revolting against us. I tend to think that it’s highly doubtful you’d find yourself being vacuumed to death by your Roomba.

But what our conversation did entertain was the idea that one could take control and/or reprogram your vacuuming robot with a malicious content. It was quite an interesting and enjoyable conversation; there’s a spectrum of motives and possibilities.  Take a closer look here.

So what do you think? Any Roomba or Spykee owners feeling a little exposed? Is it really something we should be concerned about? Or shall we continue opening up our families to robotic additions?

 

 

Open Source LabVIEW Code: The RoBoard RB-100 November 3, 2009

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This tasty chunk of code comes from the RoboSavvy Forum, a great place for hobbyist and robotics enthusiasts to find low-cost robotics kits, materials and information.

Mr. Richard van der Wolf from the Netherlands created his own open-source RoBoIO library in LabVIEW, which allows you to communicate with and control the Roboard RB-100. This board is compatible with several robot kits that are already out there, including the Kondo Humanoid Robot (KHR), Hitec’s Robonova, the Robotis Bioloid and Robobuilder. In addition, if you build your own hardware platform from scratch, you have plenty of communication standard options to choose from. You can find all the info you would need on the board’s hardware here, on the RoboSavvy site.

And here’s Mr. van der Wolf’s LabVIEW code (man, I wish my name was cool like that): http://www.roboard.com/labview/Labview_RoBoIOv15b.zip

If you run into any issues, I suggest you hit up this forum thread, as it’s specific to the LabVIEW files for the RB-100. Thanks RoboSavvy!

Some robot funnies October 26, 2009

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Compliments of one of my favorite web comic strip sites (that caters specifically to geeks like me), xkcd.com.

Are you a robot?

Are you a robot?

The Terminator, perhaps more accurate.

NXT AlphaRex: Meet Spykee from ERECTOR August 12, 2009

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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.