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Robotics Hardware Hacking Hardware

Open Design for ~$800 Swarm Robots 106

An anonymous reader writes "There are lots of multi-robot designs out there. Most are either research platforms well over $2K (often $10K or more), or are hobbyist bots under $400 with tiny brains and few sensors. But George Mason University's new FlockBots wiki is interesting. They're trying to pack as much functionality as possible into a roughly $800, 7" mobile swarmbot, and publish the design and software as a free and open spec. So far their design includes a wireless 200MHz Gumstix Linux computer, a camera, range and bump sensors, wheel encoders, a can gripper, and lots more. It's a great-looking design and I think the cost could drop to $500 with vendors doing consolidation."
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Open Design for ~$800 Swarm Robots

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  • by Alaren ( 682568 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @10:43PM (#12990914)
    Welcome our new flocking overlords... well, I'll enjoy having it do my dishes up until the revolution comes, anyway.

    Seriously, though, I think this would be a lot of fun to build with my little brother as a good introduction to the world of electronics. Too many kids these days think if they can plug a PCI card into a motherboard without breaking anything, they're friggin' techies.
  • When they come up with something like this 234 []

    THEN I'll be impressed. ok.. so I am already, but hey.

    Awesome stuff though!
  • by CyricZ ( 887944 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @10:48PM (#12990941)
    I wonder if we'll see freedom fighters in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan start to use robots like these such as weapons (assuming these researchers do succeed in keeping the cost low). Indeed, considering the US military's increased use of drones and unmanned combat vehicles, it is doubtful that those they are fighting against will not soon resort to employing he same methodologies.

    This particular device uses Linux, which brings up another question: should developers of open source software license their software so as to prevent it from being used in such killing devices? Or should freedom trump such an argument?
    • Only if by "freedom fighter" you mean "technologically inclined terrorist". I suppose one of the optional packages might have the thing roll into a crowded restaurant and blow itself up.

      And what would you intend with your anti-"killing device" license? Do you *really* want to drive the people who intend to kill with computers into the arms of Microsoft? I can see it now; the "Blue Screen of Death to America"

      Moderator Filter: If you want to call me a troll, READ THE FUCKING PARENT.
    • Nope not a chance. Part of the reason why the insurrgency has been so successful is the low tech aspect. This is something the US found and the forgot about in Vietnam. In a straight up battle, the US probably has the best technology in the world, against simple devices such as road side bombs and car/truck bombs they don't know what to do.
    • by hoggoth ( 414195 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @11:08PM (#12991024) Journal
      > should developers of open source software license their software so as to prevent it from being used in such killing devices?

      This is a great thought. By forbidding using open source software in killing devices we will cause great numbers of lawyers to approach the fighters to serve notice of the lawsuits. The fighters, of course, are already killing people and killing a few lawyers that get in their way won't bother them.

      Killers use up their inventory of killing robots.
      Software developers feel good about being on the moral high-road.
      Lawyers die.

      It's a win-win situation.

    • by Admiral Burrito ( 11807 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @11:13PM (#12991045)
      This particular device uses Linux, which brings up another question: should developers of open source software license their software so as to prevent it from being used in such killing devices?

      Somehow, I doubt that people who would use the software for such purposes would be dissuaded by the licensing conditions.

      • Geek: Hey that's my software you're using!
        Major: Huh? Did someone say something?
        Geek: You've copied my software!
        Major: So?
        Geek: It's not licensed for military use. I insist you erase it immediately.
        Major: Talk to my evil killer robot. It's in there.
        Geek: Wow. Imagine a beowolf cluster of those!
    • We should not restrict anybody from using software. If we allowed restrictions then everybody would have their favorite restriction.

      -no military uses
      -no Taliban can use this software
      -no al Queda can use this software
      -no Nazis
      -no Republicans
      -no vegetarians
      -no meat eaters
      -no SUV drivers
      -everybody but Martha Stewart

      and so on. Pretty soon what was free isn't so free. That's because restrictions and freedom and opposing concepts. When in doubt, go with freedom. Some people will do things don't agree with with
    • Open Source must be free for all or else it isn't Free. Should the GPL include a clause that prevents military contractors, neo-nazis, child molesters and Bill Gates from using the software ?

      Never. We cannot exclude a single group from using Free software. This would be a desecration of the Freedom that the software stands for. Also, every OSS author would use the license as a political platform to condemn people at random: "This software cannot be used by Southern Baptists, Wahhabists and the followers of
    • Developers of killing devices won't use Linux, of course. The'll use the OS specifically licenced for these purposes: OpenBSD.
      " which OpenBSD uses and redistributes must be free to all (be they people or companies), for any purpose they wish to use it, including modification, use, peeing on, or even integration into baby mulching machines or atomic bombs to be dropped on Australia." -- Theo de Raadt
      • That's a very interesting quote. I often hear Theo described as a cockfool or a fanatic. But that quote, if he really did say it, proves the opposite. It would suggest that he is one of the few people who truly understands the notion of "freedom", in that true freedom allows one to do anything one wishes. Could you provide a link to the mailing list archive or newsgroup posting or wherever it is that he says that? That quote shows the freedom that every open source developer should drive for.
        • That specific comment [] was made in regards to the removal of IPF. But this interpretation of the concept of freedom is strongly held by the whole OpenBSD development team; just have a look at the Lyrics [] page, which outlines some of the big issues behind OpenBSD releases:
          • 3.3 - Sun refuses to release full documentation for the UltraSparc III processor.
          • 3.4 - OpenBSD loses funding after no-strings-attached grant turns out to have strings attached limiting freedom of speech
          • 3.5 - Cisco attempts to assert pate
        • And this [] is quite possibly the funniest (and oddly relevant to this discussion) email on the subject.

    • Unless a terrorist can hijack a bunch of these for free, why use them when a stolen car and some C-4 or Semtex is a hell of a lot more effective and cheaper?

      Oh, sure, I can think of scenarios where they would be useful, depending on how small they can get and still carry a lethal payload of something (explosives, gas, anthrax, whatever). But in general, it's unlikely anybody other than intelligence or military agencies of industrialized nations would use them.

      The US military has a long way to go to get dr
    • I've always been a little fuzzy on the concept of using a robot for something a real live solider can't do better. For recon, OK, it makes sense -- we need to see somewhere, its a dangerous job, send the robot to see and we don't care if it gets shot.

      How many other operations are there for the military, though? Killing stuff? Great, we send the robot swarm somewhere with its little pop gun to... oh, wait. If we already know where the enemy is, we don't need to kill them with little pop guns. We kill

    • Why build a robot for $800? It's cheeper to tell a teenager he will get layed if he just blows himself up
    • Oddly enough, someone's thought of that already. []

      It's a damn good web comic, so don't /. 'em... (Yeah, like that request would help anything!)
  • by Sv-Manowar ( 772313 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @10:49PM (#12990947) Homepage Journal
    Its interesting that they chose to pair the Gumstix with the Acroname Brainsem. I've been working with the brainstem for mobile robotics as part of CSCS [] and found it extremely flexible for robotics development. In what we've been doing, we used the brainstem chained to Zaurus PDA's, to achieve a similar linux control environment for the actual board (as the TEA language used to program the brainstem is somewhat restrictive). This platform seems like a great way for people to start out with a known good set of equipment, something that would really have helped us when getting started. (We had a whole load of teething issues getting the PDA's and brainstems talking, not to mention creating working combinations of servos)
    • I think they haven't yet got a Robostix [], which we designed to be a replacement for the Brainstem at a much lower price, with a better feature set, and better gumstix integration. Still not much there on the software side for Robostix, but all your normal AVR tools should work great, and control of the robostix from userspace on the gumstix is just around the corner.
      • My Robostix was ordered last week, and should arrive next week. We'll be evaluating it to see how good a fit it is for the FlockBots, and how much effort there will be in switching to it (soldering ~40 pins per board adds up).

        If nothing else, I look forward to a microcontroller that can keep up with the quadrature wheel encoders. Having to use polling on the Brainstem was less than ideal -- we had to slow the bots down a whole lot.

        • My Robostix arrived yesterday (actually, I got two!). They came with the pin headers already soldered on. I seem to recall Gordon mentioned something about the first batch coming with headers installed on the Gumstix mailing list.

          I've not fired it up yet, hopefully I'll have this new chassis rolling by the end of the day and we'll see what Robostix can do. It does look cool with all the headers and a Gumstix installed, just one small, solid mass of computing power and I/O connectors.

    • Well, a nice and fiarly cheap add-on are Polaroid Sonic Range/Distance Finders. Basically a poor man's sonar. I believe they only cost about $20. Get a good servo to mount it on and you can get some pretty decent 360 range mapping to add to the camera. This would allow much more detailed mapping to be done of the area that the robot is in for realitively little cost. There are some API's already in existance for the devices coded in C and other languages.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        The problem with sonar is that it eats batteries like there's no tomorrow. That's fine if you're runnng off of lead acid or li-poly like the bigger bots, but these guys are trying to run the bot for 4 hours off of a pack of 5 A's. Sonar's not feasible for this, but the excellent SHARP IR rangers they're using *are* feasible for it.
  • If you could mix this with the NERO game that was mentioned a few days ago: 2129214&tid=206&tid=10 [] That would be cool, except you'd have to destroy them before they got to smart or they'd take over the world.
  • Now we can start playing R/C Pikmin.
  • by myowntrueself ( 607117 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @10:58PM (#12990981)
    When the time comes to start smashing up robots, count me in!
  • ...The replicators!

    Thor's beam won't save us this time, they are already here and are replicating through mental manipulation of the scientists' brains to convince them as if they are their own creation!
    • I feel the need to point out that it wasn't really Thor's beam. It was O'Neill that designed it (with the help of the knowledge of the Ancients). Thor just built the first unit.

      My knowing this fact tells me that I really need to get a life.

  • by kai.chan ( 795863 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @11:01PM (#12990995)
    Having an Open Design is well and good, but I think there is still one main factor that prevents the field of robotics from flourishing. The problem stems from the lack of standard in both the development of the software, hardware, and mechanics.

    Since there is no standard, someone can be using Microcontroller A with Motion Controller X using Programming Language N. Then finally combining these electronics with Servo K. When drivers for Motion Controller X has already been written under Programming Language M, developers have to spend time porting the code for another language for a different microprocessor, which might or might not work with the Servo.

    When there are so many variables in robotics without any standard, a lot of development time are wasted either porting code, finding minor differences between devices and motors that causes incompatibilities, or choosing non-optimal parts for ease of implementation. In order for the field of robotics to advance at a faster rate, there needs to be a more standardized open environment in the software, hardware, and mechanical aspect.
    • Doesn't really matter IMO. These are really just sandbox research projects designed to generate some interesting results so that they can get more money to fund more sandbox research projects of this type. Which, in turn, must be used to 'gun for still more grants' as opposed to actually do something useful with the money. The fact that the majority of the time is spent porting code has little to do with the fact that right now the field of swarm robotics is mostly sandbox projects. I see no end to this
    • Really What Robotic needs... is a high-level operating system and standard interface like normal computer OS's.

      The navigation package, the sensor package, etc. need standard interfaces to a "driver" level; just like the different drivers for various levels of the OS - file systems, disk drives, etc.

      The OS would output a command like "turn 30 degrees, go forward 3 meters." The drivers would implement these commands. Or maybe, "start turning left" and monitor the output from the "Positional" driver un

  • WTF?! (Score:2, Funny)

    by MukiMuki ( 692124 )
    No "traveling beowulf" jokes?

    Not a single Skynet reference?

    Where the hell AM I?!
    • I, too, felt a little lost until I saw a "welcome...overlord" post. Everything is OK. You're safe now.
    • Just imagine, a traveling skynet of these things...

      Beowulf is beginning...

      In Soviet Russia, Robots create cheap swarming YOU!

      But the real question is... can it run linux?

      Feel better?
  • Make sure the switch is set to 'serve', not 'kill'.
  • by Tablizer ( 95088 )
    ...seems the ultimate goal is to fetch another beer without leaving the couch (and without organizing the fridge). AI has officially arrived when that has happened.
  • only you (Score:3, Interesting)

    by jeffehobbs ( 419930 ) on Tuesday July 05, 2005 @11:18PM (#12991068) Homepage

    Cheap swarm robots? Hopefully they can find the room to post this [] somewhere in their workspace.

  • Great! When I finally built one, it saw the other ones and decided to migrate to the south... ...I guess thats why they call them swarmbots
  • our 2003 southeast conference robot entry, I mean exactly like ours. We had two basic stamp's on the multi level platforms, two wheels, and the shape was identical. Sorry I don't have pictures.
  • This is gonna give a new meaning to making a plugin to an open source project.

    You really have to physically plug it in!

    Nah, that's not right. There should be software written for the robot to install the plugin himself otherwise m$ will claim linux isn't user-friendly. It's gonna need to be a bit more friendly that windows installshield or we're gonna have some physical crashes and broken windows all over the lab - which would make Microsoft claim they're not the only one with *that* problem.

    I'd be impre
  • Man, the moment I read the headline I immediately thought about Philip K. Dick's short story, "Second Variety". What a great story. I never saw the movie based upon it, "Screamers"; I wonder if it was any good? Hmmm, methinks the Netflix queue is about to get an update.

    I didn't RTFA, but I'm going to assume there will be no deployable blades springing out from these swarmbots. I mean, it could be, but why take the chance and ruin a good nights' sleep?
    • I've seen Screamers but I haven't read the P. K. Dick story (shame on me I know, everything he wrote that I haven't read yet is on my todo list). Anyway I highly recommend Screamers, it was very enjoyable. Afaik it is also one of the most true-to-the-book adaptations ever made and the differences that are there are imo added value (some hate the last twenty minutes while I think they follow a logical reasoning adding ambiguity I'm sure P. K. wouldn't neccessarily disapprove of). I'm confident P. K. would li
  • Swambots are a great idea - the most useful purpose of which is construction, I would think. But power is a problem. Someone needs to ressurect Tesla's wireless power distribution schemes w/respect to Swarmbots.
  • Another approach... (Score:3, Informative)

    by Jesrad ( 716567 ) on Wednesday July 06, 2005 @01:37AM (#12991642) Journal
    I can think of another sort [] of open source robots that cost well under $100 [].

  • What are you going to do with ONE $800 "swarmbot"?

    If you have more than one, what's it going to cost again?

    I mean, yeah, it's better to cost $800 than ten grand, but I thought the point of a "swarmbot" is that you need LOTS of them to get anything done. If ONE costs $800 - or even $400 - I don't think anybody other than Bill Gates is going to be buying them any time soon - certainly not for "gripping cans".

    Gripping hand grenades or guns, maybe...Anybody remember "Runaway" with Tom Selleck and Gene Simmon
  • Save LA from a nuke, get a university named after you. Cool!

    So is season 5 of '24' going to be Kiefer versus the $800 terrorist swarmbots? Chloe'll have them reprogrammed in no time.

  • Here's the breast option []

  • by Rxke ( 644923 ) on Wednesday July 06, 2005 @05:15AM (#12992411) Homepage
    if you're willing to do some soldering.

    A look at the list reveals some of the off-the-shelf stuff is very pricey (like the battery charger, boy oh boy, what a rip-off.)

    I guess we'll see people come up with homebrew solutions to expensive off-the-shelf parts, and bring the price down to, say $400, easily.
    Might be an interesting project to follow.


  • by Anonymous Coward
    Can be found here [].
  • What you need is another, similar bot with a flat top and a forklift-type arrangement on front. Then you can get a lifter bot and a normal bot working in cooperation to get stuff onto a table etc.

    Now imagine a tower of these things...

    ps. I think I've just worked out where this idea came from. Remember the episode of Futurama, where Fry, Leela and Bender are trying to escape from the robot planet, and the robots chasing them start stacking themselves on top of one another, before crashing to the ground bec
  • Sea Swarm (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward
    I'm working on an underwater version. Bigest obstacle is communications. Blue-green LED (as opposed to infrared for use above water) gets good bandwidth but fallback to modulated 50kHz when link fails is a royal PITA. Power requirements aren't too bad as B&W camera with blue-green light source sees pretty well under water. Failsafe for dead main battery is valvewhich opens when power is lost allowing bladder to inflate and fish to float, belly up, like a dead fish. Beacon on belly mounted antenna runs o
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Outfits like sell pre-cut kits (eg "Botster") that run standard microprocessors. These kits are much better made, and well under $800 already! Depending on the processor, you can get 'em for under $200.
  • would include a soda-can gripper as primary equipment on an $800 swarmbot...
  • speaking of robotics, anyone know where i can get something that operates like an on/off 180 degree electronic actuator at the cheapest possible price?

    I say like because if a dc motor with stops, a stepper motor, or a servo is the cheapest I'll do it. I'd preferably like the easiest/cheapest rig I can do for Thanks.

You can tune a piano, but you can't tuna fish. You can tune a filesystem, but you can't tuna fish. -- from the tunefs(8) man page