Stuff Begins Arriving in the Post…

Early Prototype

This article is the second in the multi-part series “Building the KR01 Robot” ( 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ), and describes beginning to design and build the hardware of the KR01 robot project.

Inspired by David Anderson’s SR04 robot (in particular, his YouTube video) I searched around for a suitable robot platform, the kind of chassis and motor that fit the scale of the design-in-my-head, and a few other factors. Having read David’s documentation of the project I rather liked his “very loose” design criteria:

  1. Survive in a wide range of (cluttered) human environments autonomously and continuously, without getting stuck.
  2. Provide a robust and reliable platform for developing navigation and behavior software.
  3. Be entertaining and aesthetic for the local human population.

I thought I’d have a go at updating what he’d done in 1998 to see what 22 years might have brought to progress in the world of “personal robots”. I’d been perusing the AdaFruit and Pimoroni websites and had seen all manner of pretty amazing sensors for prices I could afford. It was time to stop making Raspberry Pi night lights and try something more ambitious.

I admit to having strayed from one of David’s stronger design principles in the SR04, that being his “dual-differential drive platform with the geometry of an 11 inch circle” 1. That symmetry is valuable and I’m hoping that my tank-tread design (or four wheels if the treads don’t work out so well) won’t suffer. Watching the SR04 rotate continuously on a table without moving in place is pretty impressive. But I have to start somewhere. I can always modify the design…

OSEPP Tank Kit
The OSEPP Tank

So, I settled on an OSEPP Tank Kit. It’s a bit like Lego or Meccano in that the kit is provided as a set of red-anodised aluminum beams, some accessory plates and connector bits, using 4mm nuts and bolts to hold things together. There’s some flexibility in this, and OSEPP sells accessory kits. I bought an extra set of beams, as I knew of one deficiency in the Tank Kit I wanted to immediately change: it has four wheels but only two motors: the port motor at the front, the starboard motor at the rear.

Since David’s design uses a PID Controller I knew I’d need to use motor encoders, which was one of the reasons I chose the OSEPP kit: they offer a pair of motor encoders using Hall Effect sensors. I’d seen an image of two OSEPP motors and encoders mounted along a single beam, quite an elegant design. It seemed prudent to have both of the encoders on the same pair of motors (either the front or the rear). The Tank would have to be wider and I also wanted four drive motors, not just two. Using tank treads is not very efficient so I figured there’d be insufficient horsepower to drive a robot with only two.

In New Zealand orders from overseas can take anywhere from a few days to weeks in waiting, so I started making decisions and putting in orders. Locally I bought some stainless 4mm hardware from Mitre 10 and Coastal Fasteners. (See Vendors on the NZPRG wiki.)

The Kit Arrives

I’m not going to do one of those ridiculous unboxing videos. Yes, the box arrived. I opened it. I didn’t keep track much with videos or photos. I was playing, not performing.

prototyping in the kitchen
Playing on the Kitchen Table

The OSEPP kit is well-designed, though it’s impossible not to leave a bit of rash on the red anodisation. If you simply built the Tank Kit as intended this wouldn’t be an issue so much, but I tried at least four or five different permutations before settling on one design, and then had to modify it several times when I tried adding things like the front bumper supports and the mount for the power switches.

Beautifully Machined Wheels

The hardware is fun to work with. Not like Lego, where it can be a struggle to connect things securely, the OSEPP kit’s parts are held together by 4mm stainless steel nuts and bolts.

I locally sourced some stainless lock nuts (also called “nyloc nuts”) as I prefer them to the serrated flange nuts provided with the kit (though these work just fine too).

The Motor Encoder kit hadn’t arrived so I built it without remembering that photo I’d seen with the single beam holding both two motors and their encoders. The design as shown above on the kitchen table had no place to mount the encoders. The photo below shows each pair of motors mounted to a single beam, with the motor encoders attached to the front (top) pair.

Front and rear pairs of motors, you can see the encoders mounted on the motor shafts of the front pair. The left and right motors are wired together so they’ll appear as a left drive and a right drive.

When the motor encoders finally arrived I did another round of building and came up with what I thought was the final chassis, but even that had to change once I tried to mount the tank treads. As you can see, there’s not much clearance between the front bumper and the treads. And of course, the front bumper was only a stand-in until I could begin building the real bumper.

Next time: we begin the wiring and mounting the platform for the circuitry…

The KR01 Robot Project

This article is the first in the multi-part series “Building the KR01 Robot” ( 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 ), and describes some of the background leading up to the project. Further posts can be found under the KR01 tag.

About a month ago, when I started, I hadn’t really thought much into the future of my rather humble robot project, certainly not enough to consider where it might lead. Certainly not enough to think about starting a robotics group. At this point I have no idea where that group will lead (if anywhere), but I can at least blog about the project itself.

A Little History

Z80 Single Board Computer, ca. 1979

In my senior year in high school in 1979 I designed and built a robot. It used an 8 bit Intel Z80 single board computer1 with 1K of RAM memory running at a whopping 2MHz. The PC board was about one square foot (30cm), had a hexadecimal keypad and a six-digit red LED display. It sat on top of a chassis I built out of aluminum and some large circular PC boards I found in a surplus shop on the outskirts of Des Moines, Iowa, that apparently were from the insides of a missile. It used two large DC motors, a wheel caster and a 6V lead acid battery. It was an ambitious project for a high school student and I never quite got the ultrasonic sensors working properly (the schematic was from a fish finder), but it was a good learning experience, a lot of fun, and led eventually to an IT career.

Over that career I had the fortunate experience of working at NASA Headquarters for a few years, where as a fellow Mac enthusiast I met Dave Lavery, the head of the robotics division. At the time he had a prototype of the Mars Sojourner rover sitting on his desk. I remember marvelling at the beauty of the machining of the wheels, and wishing I had that kind of budget (and a machine shop). While helping to set up a public demo I also had the opportunity to pilot a telerobotics sled under the ice in Antarctica. Not surprisingly it was an amazing place to work.

NASA Sojourner Mars Rover
Photo courtesy NASA

Years have passed and I now live in New Zealand, where most of my creative energy has over the past few years been in music (I have an improvisational abstract band named Barkhausen; we just finished our second CD).

The combination of experimenting with some DIY microcontroller-based Eurorack synthesizer modules and the advances in the world of Raspberry Pi has found me back into robotics. For the past few months I’ve been purchasing various playthings from Pimoroni and Adafruit and doing some experimenting.

While browsing around doing research for the project I came upon a YouTube video “David Anderson demonstrates his method for creating autonomous robots“, where David showed a local group of people some of his robots:

David Anderson demonstrates his method for creating autonomous robots

Now, I wouldn’t say David’s robots are the most sophisticated ones I’ve seen, not walking around, not androids with faces that move, not MIT’s Shakey nor something from NASA. But they are remarkably clever designs. He also seems like a really nice, down-to-earth guy. What struck me was the fact that his robots were within the reach of normal people to build. Something I could build.

Following David’s trail led me to the Dallas Personal Robotics Group (DPRG), which claims to be “one of the oldest special interest groups in the world devoted to personal and hobby robotics”. Undoubtedly. They were founded in 1984, five years after I’d built my robot in high school.

I ended up joining the DPRG mailing list. In replying to one of their members’ messages where I mentioned I’d started building my own robot, he was very friendly and encouraged me to blog about it. Well, the only blog I had has been devoted to my band and that didn’t seem particularly appropriate. Then, last night we had some friends over for dinner and I was surprised to learn that their 9 year old girl was quite keen to learn about my robot project. So I proposed the idea of starting a Pukerua Bay robotics group.

It turns out there isn’t any national robotics group in New Zealand, nor even a local one near Wellington, so when I was shopping for a domain name it turns out that “robots.org.nz” was available so I bought it. We’ve gone national!

So, if you’re interested, you’re very welcome to follow me on this journey to build a robot…

Next: stuff begins arriving in the post…