Robot Army : From Tupperware to 3D Printing

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When I moved back home from art school in Chicago, one of the biggest drags was no longer having access to the beefy machine shop that was down the street from my apartment. I went from playing with a room-sized lathe and mill to having little more than a $20 soldering iron and dremel at my disposal. It seemed my metal-cutting days were going to end as soon as they started… well enough, this didn’t stop me from making the things I wanted to. I just had to use plastic now instead. Luckily for me, plastic was in abundance at my parent’s house. My mom hordes take-out containers and tupperware, so I had a bottomless stash to carve up.

Still pursuing my vision of creating the field of robotic flowers, I was trying to refine the design of my ‘steam’ into something a bit more controllable. At some point I ran across a video of a small delta robot someone had made on the internet. As I watched it bob up and down in that special twitchy, impatient way… I fell in love. From that moment on I became obsessed with building my own!

Long story short… Everything became a potential shape. I-beams. They’re everywhere :

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I used a lot of crappy plastic hangers. They made great paddles to connect onto the servo horn like you see below :

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In the beginning, mechanical joints mystified me. I didn’t quite understand what was going on with how a delta robot moved, so this prevented me from being particularly inventive with what I used to connect all the piece together. I read on a forum someplace that you could use 4-40 swivel ball links, which you can get from a hobby store… so I bought myself a set to try out. The thing is, they work great but they cost way more than any piece of plastic should (like… $18.00 for 12 of them. Just enough for one robot). ALSO, they require tiny spacers on either side of the ball. This helps give the rod a breadth of motion without smacking into the plastic piece its rotating in. The sucky part is that the pack of 12 joints form the hobby store only comes with half the number you’ll need (for a delta you need one on each side). The links are the pieces at the end of these 4-40 rods :

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In order to make a whole field worth like I was planning, I’d need to find a cheaper alternative that was less hardware dependent. For now though, these worked. I attached my paddles made of hanger bits to these arms :

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The next step was figuring out how to mount the delta robot. I realized that the servo motors would have to be elevated so that the paddles could swing below the angle of the table top. I didn’t have anything fancy to use at the time, so I took a pasta togo box from the cupboard and cut into it with my dremel to get some nice clearance slots :

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The next thing to figure out was how on earth I was going to mount the actual motors onto my base. A normal person would have used L-brackets of some sort, so I did precisely that… except again, mine were made from strips of plastic cut from togo boxes. >.<

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As you’ve guessed… the end effector was also eventually made from cut pieces of plastic. My first working prototype was practically a togo box with motors :

This was a great feat making my first functioning delta robot. I was proud of its frumpiness because though it wasn’t mechanically solid like a robot made of metal, it still worked. Of course, I wasn’t going to make a whole field of delta robots out of togo containers (although I probably could have because my mom surely had enough to do so). The next step was to shrink the design and refine the method so it could be repeated with ease.

My next prototype was still made of plastic, but I got classy and went to the Container Store and invested in some nice cylindrical boxes. These would become the new bases for my robots :

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I repeated the same steps, cutting the clearance slots for the paddles and making small L-brackets to mount the motors to the base. The base the motors were connects to was actually the lid of the container so you could remove it and use the bottom part as an enclosure for the board running it (clever!) :

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I had aspirations of building three of this particular prototype… to see if they could all be networked together and potentially all run at once :

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The two-dollar micro servos I bought from some nondescript hobby store (imported from China) were terrible quality. Though my second prototype worked, it moved like it had Parkinson’s disease. =/

I wasn’t really happy with this… but two dollars a motor was all I could afford at the time (I was still living at home with the folks). Eager to try again when I could invest in some more quality materials… I started rethinking the entire design.

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For the rest of the summer I meditated on what I had learned. The little blue servos from China stripped in a matter of days while I was testing out code… So I was left with nothing more than a delta shell.

One extremely fateful day I met the people of SYN Shop at an art faire downtown. The hackerspace was just a glimmer in someone’s eye at the time and was run out of the garage of the man who is now my collaborator (Mark Koch). They invited me to stop by some time and show off whatever I was working on. Eesh. Even though I was embarrassed and apprehensive, I brought the mangled corpse of my second delta prototype to show to people. In spite of its appearance, my gimpy child got a lot of attention for the mere fact that I managed to pull off making a delta robot from garbage. Mark had always wanted to build his own pick and place machine, so seeing my creation urged him to get off his butt and make one of his own.

This is when the discovery of 3D printing changed my life. Mark suggested that I design my delta’s parts in CAD and of all things…print them. I was familiar with 3D printers, however the one my art school had was huge and they charged an insulting amount just to produce tiny things with it. Up until then, I had no clue that desktop 3D printers even existed, so my mind was blown when I saw his Replicator for the first time. The usefulness of this tool was revolutionary. I could continue building my robots in plastic like I had been, but I wouldn’t have to machine my parts as if they were metal. How easy!

I spent the rest of the year learning Sketchup. This is a free piece of software that I highly recommend to beginners. It isn’t as powerful as Maya or Solidworks, but its intuitive so you can start making things with it immediately. You basically draw 2D shapes like you would in Illustrator and then extrude them upward to make basic geometrical objects. You can edit things from there of course. If you’re looking to design mechanical parts, this tool is a wet dream, but be patient because it has it’s irritating quirks and limitations.

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One day during CES in 2013, Mark came onto something rather brilliant while we were discussing our designs over margaritas. The solution for those expensive and convoluted swivel ball links (that I had been stuck using) was to use some sort of U-joint that could compress onto ball bearings and twist freely in all directions. The idea was simple and genius :

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This was an important quality because now we could completely divorced ourselves from having to source out any hobby parts. This means aside from some hardware, we no longer had to buy link joints, or cut rod in order to make the robot work. Everything was designed in CAD. Everything was 3D printed. My cost went down significantly, and at last I had the perfect model which I could realistically expect to afford building in mass… and all I had to do was hit ‘print’.

Once we mastered this technicality, it was a matter of implementing it throughout our designs. My personal delta robot went through many…….. many revisions before it became the thing it is now :

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It was at some point last spring that our robots reached their pinnacle. My first complete and polished delta made from 3D printed parts was named Jeden (after the Polish word for one), and Mark’s hanging delta robot was named Amber (after an inside joke Mark and I had at the time). This was the revision of Jeden right before I got my neon yellow filament in the mail :

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We had been working so hard that our collaboration was getting noticed by the others in our community and our friends from SYN Shop decided to interview us about our ‘rivalry’ for their first podcast :

We hadn’t really thought of one another as collaborators (or rivals for that matter) until that point in time. Once it was brought to our attention however we took off like rockets loaded with beer and nitrous. We’ve been working together ever since and within a year brought a delta robot kit to market… which is the thing I’m promoting so heavily right now on Kickstarter.

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This campaign is not only getting us our funding to build that elusive art installation I’ve been wanting to create, it’s also the introduction of our new company to the maker community. Mark and I don’t expect this will be our last kit. We’re sort of hooked on this process now and already have plans for what’s next. We are Robot Army LLC and it looks like we’re here to stay =]

It’s been a fantastic journey. I’m getting to strike a couple of goals off my bucket list. I started this blog two years ago to prove to the world (and myself) that anyone with a little bit of drive and passion can bring something from their dreams into reality… even coming from a position where you lack experience or expertise. There is a wealth of open knowledge and support out there to be drawn upon. If you choose to use it, anything is possible.

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Robot Army : Final Stretch

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It was fun having our Kickstarter in tandem with the Olympics. It felt like we were participating in our own sort of event. As I watched the closing ceremony last night, I felt sadness because I knew our ship is setting sail soon and I’m at the point where all I can really do is sit tight and wave goodbye. We have less than a week left and I don’t want it to end. It feels like much more could have been done in regard to press, but Mark assures me that PR is sort of like the lottery. If I could accept that I’d stop banging my head over it like I’ve been doing, but alas… it seems I can’t. tehe.

Our campaign has been an exciting experience over all. Now that we’re switching gears from messy uncontrolled busy to just plain busy, I’ll be able to do some of the things I miss in my free time. This includes playing the occasional video game and shooting episodes of Geeky Freaky with Mark. We still have A LOT left to do. Fulfillment is nothing to be taken lightly, but at least I wont have to write articles about myself in third person every morning.

In preparation for the second phase of our Kickstarter, Mark and I set up a forum for communication with our backers… and I’m working on the design layout for our website, robot-army.com. This will be the official hub of our new LLC where our kit will live after it runs its course on Kickstarter, and where everyone can find updates as our project evolves. In addition, this is where our backers can showcase the neat things they do with our kit. I’m secretly hoping to start some weird culture around  exotic modifications done with delta robots (Project Lick would be an example of an exotic use for a delta).

In some other sort of news… Mark and I got a world map from the craft store the other week and decided to visualize where all our backers are located with push pins. Mark is also building us a long white table for his workspace which is now in the process of being transformed into the ‘War Room’. We can finally coral our robots into one area instead of having parts and pieces peppered throughout the house (which they currently are… it looks like a neon yellow boneyard). Any how, the map with all of its pins will go nicely on the wall at the end of the table. Muahahaha…..

We also confirmed that we’ll be showing our installation at the Las Vegas Mini Maker Faire in April. It probably wont be completely ready by then… but we’ll exhibit our progress in some form. Those of you in Vegas can come be the first to see what all the fuss has been about.

If you haven’t told your friends about our Kickstarter, then you might want to urge them to purchase a soldier of the neon yellow onslaught so that it can protect them once the robots start taking over. Just saying… : Robot Army Starter Kit

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Robot Army : Kinect and Kinematics

All day Tuesday Mark messed with the delta math trying to map the motors to the Kinect input. It seemed like no progress was to be made until the 11th hour when he ran his code and everything suddenly went from fail to working perfectly. So that spooky kinematics hurdle has now been cleared.

Today is turning out to be a bit stressful. I’m preparing to leave for a ten-day winter pilgrimage back east to visit family, and as such am going over a list of things that Mark and I must both take care of over the duration that we are not conjoined at the hip. He’ll be handling all the tangible stuff – while I crunch numbers and go into deep marketing mode.

In other news, we were able to do some actual “light playing” this weekend. As a member of our hackerspace suggested, it would be really neat to see the delta robots paint with their LEDs in some long exposure shots. After another round of promotional pics, we took a robot in the bedroom, set the tripod up and turned out the lights…heh. The result was magical :

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I can’t forget to mention that Rev B came in from OSH Park. WOO! If these work, I’ll be ordering another handful this week so that we have enough brains in time for January. With luck, our demo size just doubled from three to six- if not, I have new fancy pasties =]

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Interested in making a delta robot? For the full scoop on Light Play, visit : lightplay.zoness.com

Robot Army : Kinect Success!

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Today was cold. I drove to Mark’s with frost caked on my car from the morning dew. BRR. Once I arrived, I drank a million cups of coffee and attempted to get some work done on my spread sheet… but let’s be honest, everything I did today was boring (prices and PR), and everything Mark did was amazing. So lets focus on his achievements.

Ever since Saturday Mark and I have both been trying to figure out how to get the Kinect communicating with some servo motors. It seems that all the example code on the internet no longer compiles because of some issue between the new processing, java, and Arduino. In short, Mark began from scratch and at last today, typed in the magic numbers that made everything work.

The Kinect isn’t controlling actual delta robot kinematics however. For today, the triumph is in having mapped a motor to each of the x, y and z-axis of your hand. That’s right, if you wave your hand around… the delta robot will move according to where it is in 3D space. It isn’t very intuitive looking yet, but by golly it’s a damn good start. As soon as Mark figured this out we cracked open some beers and filmed this video, calling it a day. We’ll start on the more complex stuff Friday. Good job Mark. You’re a wizard. =]

 

 

Robot Army : Ditching the EEG

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After a jolly romp to Quick Care to get antibiotics for my fluffy sinus, I ‘m in bed again writing emails. This PR stuff so far is feeling a lot like standing on my tip toes while shouting through a cardboard tube. >.<

I did head down to SYN Shop yesterday for my first late night hang out since this spring. One of Mark’s old friends from Sun, Tsutomu, was in town for LDI (the lighting trade show) and I got to pick his brain while I was there. He was a great wealth of knowledge and gave some good feedback about me and Mark’s collaborative work as well as my light installation. Long story short, he persuaded me from using an EEG to control the robots like I was planning to. He voiced everything I had already assumed about the reality of using neural input to control anything electronic. Brain noise is noisy.

I thought for the past couple years that I could use something on the market like the Emotiv Epoch to easily decode the mess of signals coming from my brain and implement them as data inputs. In spite of my excitement about using brainwaves in my art, I held off from buying their device for a couple of reasons. One of them being that in the whole world of hacking, I hadn’t found one other example of someone successfully using an emotiv or anything else like it to do something substantial. The few hacks I did run across seemed more or less like slop turning an LED on and off by chance. There was nothing to convince me that the data people were using was reliable or consistent.

Turns out I was right. EEGs aren’t reliable or consistent. Any sensor used outside the brain is susceptible to picking up huge amounts of chatter from who knows where. Devices like the Epoch give you a tool- but it is more or less up to you as a developer to figure out how to read the input and then decide what (if) you can do anything useful with it. ::sigh::

The solution? Who knows. I have to refocus on the more important matters at hand… like raising funds to build the army! Back to that.

So in other news, I sent Mark’s second revision of the Delta brain off to OSH Park last night – and I was pleased to receive an email this morning already informing me that the panel I was assigned to went to fabrication (cheers). Yesterday,  I also ordered some cards for Pawel and Suz to hand out at their robotics conference in Florida next month. They’ll be taking Santo along with them as a demo…. which means very soon Mark will load him up with code to make him charming and winsome as ever.

Tomorrow morning, more progress and another video.

Robot Army : Cuddling my Spreadsheet

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Today, I find myself wanting desperately to feel as though I’m doing something right. I think it’s likely all the rain we’ve had that’s tainting my mood, but I’m discouraged. I’ve been adding things to my bill of materials and the proportions are seeming less than hopeful in some areas.

Now I need to start shaving cost off things that are needlessly spendy. I guess this is where I learn to be inventive and shrewd all at once.

It might just be my lack of experience in doing PR related stuff- but I’m stuck again with the getting the word out part. Maybe I’m not begging loudly enough. I’ve never been all that good at asking for attention. So this is another hurdle to overcome.

This morning I did mock ups of several different variations Mark came up with for my delta’s arms. We foresee the cups that hold onto the ball bearings wearing out over time, so we’re trying to come up with a solution. One idea was to have a slit down the center of the U-joint that some hardware would compress together so that the tension on the ball could be adjustable :

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The other thing Mark suggested was that I ditch the cup entirely. He said  it would be too difficult to mill if I decided to have my pieces machined. His idea to replace it was a simple square peg that had a “+” sign cut into it… leaving four small notches that would then grip the ball joint. I gave that a try too.

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The compression design worked well. It’s a good idea, but if I go with this type of arm, I’ll have to add another 12 pieces of hardware, plus 12 washers and nuts per kit…

The replacement for the cup worked in theory- but the ball was apt to pop out left, right or any of the directions it didn’t have material forcing it in place. So maybe not such a good idea after all.

Other than that… I’m attending a hardware startup meetup tonight with Jeff and Mark. We should all learn something from it. Tomorrow is Friday and I’m back over at Mark’s to finish and send off Rev 2 of the delta brain to be fabbed at OSH Park. Small steps. Chin high.