iRobot Roomba

iRobot Roomba 530

iRobot Roomba 530

iRobot makes a number of popular robots for everything from military and police use, to pool cleaning and vacuuming.  You may have heard of the Roomba, their vacuum cleaning robot.  Below is a video that describes the robot and how it operates.  See if you can identify correlations between the Roomba vacuum cleaning robot and the types of robots you will build or have seen elsewhere on this site. Give special attention to words like behaviors and sensors.

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Remote Control, Telerobotics and Autonomous Robots

Requirement 2B of the Boy Scouts of America Robotics Merit Badge has the scout describe the similarities and differences between remote control vehicles, telerobots and autonomous robots.  Some of the boys may have difficulty making the distinction between remote control vehicles and telerobots.  Even I, who can find almost anything on the Internet, received mostly links to pages containing the merit badge requirement when I Googled remote control versus telerobot or telerobotics.  So, I thought I’d provide a little guidance with my interpretation of the spirit of the question.

Definition of Remote Control

For the purpose of this merit badge and based on my research online, I’ve come to the conclusion that when one refers to remote control, a direct connection to the object being controlled is needed.  Technically speaking, a wired connection to a toy car makes it remote controlled whereas an RC or radio controlled car is wireless – needing no direct physical connection.  The lack of physical connection to the device being controlled and the greater distance between the operator and the device make it telerobotic.  Here are some examples of remote controlled devices.

Remote Control Spotlight

Remote Control Spotlight

Note the remote control spotlight pictured to the left.  It features numerous points of rotation, like a sophisticated telerobot, allowing the controller to adjust the beam in any direction without laying hands on the light, itself.  Notice the control system in the lower right corner of the photo.  It is similar to a car mirror adjustment system that relies on a wire, physically attached to the device, limiting its distance from the controller.  While the device is operated remotely, it must remain in close proximity to the operator.  There is a physical connection between the operator and the device being controlled.  This is a remote control device.


The NXT Rover, pictured below, is also a remote control device as it requires a physical link between the controller and the device.  By the way, the rover is an excellent example of clean, efficient design.  A minimum number of parts were required to make a remote controlled car that allows steering, speed control, and even a horn!

Remote Control NXT Rover

Remote Control NXT Rover











As sophisticated as it is, it cannot travel far without the human controller being within two feet of it.  Sadly, this design will not be making any missions to Mars any time soon.

Another, real-world example of a remote controlled vehicle is the Chariot Robotics Envirobot, featured elsewhere on this site.  You can see the eyelets on the device where cables are attached to allow remote control of the robot.

Chariot Robotics Envirobot

Chariot Robotics Envirobot


Telerobotics is similar to remote control in that the operator is controlling the device without physically touching it.  In the case of telerobotics, however; there is no physical connection to the remotely operated system, at all.

The WiFi controlled robots featured in my article on the Dexter Industries WiFi adapter, the Mars rover vehicles and police bomb disposal robots are all controlled by wireless methods.  Why is this important?  Would you rather disarm a bomb with a remote controlled robot where you had to remain attached to the robot to control it, or would you prefer to use a telerobot from a distance of about a half mile away?

Telerobots require an additional component to wired connections, also – remote sensory feedback.  Most telerobotic systems require a remote camera or some sort of interactive component to sense what is happening on the remote end of the system.  WiFi may be used within the confines of your home or office.  This could control the robot and provide a video feed.  A bomb disposal robot may use bluetooth or a similar, secure, high-powered radio frequency to control and view the robot in dangerous environments from a safe distance.  Devices that are located in very distant locations and/or harsh environments may need to rely on radio telemetery for basic instructions, but non-visual feedback to guide the vehicle; the distance between the controller and the device may be too great to allow signals to travel between the communicators effectively.

Autonomous Robots

Autonomous systems operate by making decisions based on programming and sensory feedback.  Line following robots, color sorters, and even the Roomba vacuum cleaner robots are all autonomous robots.  They are programmed to make decisions based on sensory feedback of their surroundings.

Many robots have a combination of two or all three of the styles listed here.  The Mars rover is telerobotic, but may have a collection component where it seeks out a particular type of soil to sample, without human interaction, and reports back.  There are telerobots designed to independently map out locations without human feedback but have a wired or wireless connection to occasionally “phone in” information.  So don’t get too concerned if you find it difficult to name a robot that is solely of one type or another.  For the purposes of the merit badge, be aware of the three types of robots, and be able to explain some of their similarities and differences.  If you name a Mars rover as a telerobot, but later learn of features that make it autonomous as described above, it’s okay.  It can be both.  That’s one of the things that makes robotics fun!

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Dexter Industries WiFi Adapter

So, after the last post, you may be wondering, “What is the Dexter Industries WiFi adapter?”  Well, it is a module that attaches to port 4 of the NXT brick.  This module allows the NXT to communicate with the Internet.

It is in beta format at the moment and I have been working with it to provide feedback to the developers who have been very gracious about letting me purchase a pre-release model.

So what would you do if you could access a robot through the Internet from anywhere in the world?



You could transmit data gathered remotely for remote data logging activities.  You could use a remote computer to perform calculations , operations, and data management the NXT, with its limited memory space, can’t complete.  You can also publish data directly from the robot to a web site like this one.

By the way, Dexter Industries is based in northern Virginia, so they are nearby.  They produce a number of great robotics modules for the NXT Mindstorms system, including a GPS module, a flexibilioty detector, solar panels, pressure switches, a thermometor, a thermal infra red (TIR) module and the WiFi adapter.

Lego Motorized Excavator 8043

Lego Motorized Excavator 8043

Another project I have in mind is controlling the Lego Supercar, Motorized Crane or Motorized Excavator using an NXT with WiFi and a HiTechnics IR Link Sensor!

HiTechnic IRLink Sensor

HiTechnic IRLink Sensor

Supercar 8070

Lego Supercar 8070

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Dexter Industries WiFi Power Cable Modification

I added a mount to the Dexter Industries WiFi card that provides strain relief to the power cable.  This was needed because I had to re-solder the positive lead of one of my cards when it pulled free from the card.

A view of the modification in place with the battery attached appears below.

dWiFi Power Cable ModificationdWiFi Power Cable ModificationHere is the original, unmodified card.dWiFi Power Cable Modification

First, we need to add a zip tie mount.

dWiFi Power Cable Modification Zip Tie Mount

dWiFi Power Cable Modification Zip Tie MountdWiFi Power Cable Modification

dWiFi Power Cable Modification

dWiFi Power Cable Modification

Next, I added zip ties at three points to ensure no slippage.

dWiFi Power Cable Modification Zip Ties

dWiFi Power Cable Modification Zip TiesdWiFi Power Cable Modification

dWiFi Power Cable Modification

dWiFi Power Cable Modification

The finished modification appears below.

dWiFi Power Cable Modification

dWiFi Power Cable Modification

Just another reason why zip ties should be in every roboticist’s tool kit!

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The Robots Are Here!

Lego Education Mindstorms NXT Set

Lego Education Mindstorms NXT Set

 Finally, I have received four Lego Education Mindstorms NXT robotics sets and four Lego Education Mindstorms Educator’s Resource Sets for use in the robotics merit badge program!

Now, those who plan on completing their robotics merit badge but don’t have access to robotics equipment will be able to use these sets to complete their merit badge requirements.  I will be setting up labs where the boys can  work with the equipment in pairs. 

If you are interested in completing this merit badge, please see me at a troop meeting or email me a message indicating your interest.  When I confirm with you that there is a spot for you, obtain a merit badge card and we will get started.  Much of the work you will be able to do on your own, but labs will be set up so that groups can come in and work on the projects that require programming and building with some classroom support.

Lego Education Mindstorms NXT Resource Set
Lego Education Mindstorms NXT Resource Set

If you already have access to robotics equipment, please feel free to take the merit badge and let me know that you have what you need.  You will still need a merit badge card and I or another counselor will still need to sign off on achievements.

So why Lego?

While scouts may use any robotics system available to them, I selected the Lego system for my collection as it offers a wide selection of supported programming platforms and hardware accessories.  Lego uses NXT-G as the programming platform, a small subset of LabVIEW which is an industry standard.  If boys want to explore other platforms, I have licenses for LabVIEW and RobotC, as well.  Lego has a wide selection of additional hardware sensors, motors and frame construction pieces available, as well, including the Tetrix system.  Tetrix adds onto the Lego Mindstorms system to provide more robust building options.  Tetrix may also be used to build an remote controlled robot that does not require the Mindstorms system.

Tetrix Starter Set

Tetrix Starter Set

I do have a personal copy of the Tetrix System if folks want to continue exploring robotics beyond what is required for the merit badge.  Additionally, I have most of the third party specialty sensors available for the Lego and Tetrix systems which include a compass, gyroscope, accelerometer, infrared receiver, infrared detector, infrared transmitter and an infrared soccer ball.  I have also beta tested the soon-to-be-released WiFi card from Dexter Industries.  As I replenish my budget, I’ll probably be adding more goodies.

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Robot Butler

This report comes to us from The NXT Step Mindstorms blog.  The robot in the video above was designed, built, and programmed for the Delft Univeristy of Technlogy competition and won the Delft Science Centre Award as the design deemed to have the greatest potential for actual use.

Note the batteries are portable drill batteries and the drive train uses a chain – a simple yet elegant design! I wouldn’t be surprised if the motors were the drills, themselves.

Update:  The motors are the drill motors!  Also, for those who may think the NXT could be too toy-like to make a serious robot, this machine is controlled entirely by the Lego NXT brick, just like the ones we use in the robotics labs!

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CHARLI a US First in Bipedal Robotics

This news comes from the Virginia Tech RoMeLa site. 

CHARLI (that’s for Cognitive Humanoid Autonomous Robot with Learning Intelligence) is historic. CHARLI is the first untethered, autonomous, full-sized, walking, humanoid robot with four moving limbs and a head, built in the United States. His two long legs and arms can move and gesture thanks to a combination of pulleys, springs, carbon fiber rods, and actuators. CHARLI soon will be able to talk as well.


CHARLI takes a few steps while Seungmoon Song, a master’s student in electrical and computer engineering, observes.

Dennis Hong, associate professor of mechanical engineering and director of RoMeLa, is the faculty adviser on the project to build CHARLIs L (Lightweight) and H (Heavy). To build a human-sized bipedal humanoid robot that can walk upright, traipse stairs, and cover uneven ground is the “holy grail” of robotics research, Hong said.

“The environment we live in is designed for humans: The step size of stairs, the height of door handles, etc., are designed by humans for humans,” Hong said. “Thus for a robot to live among us and to serve us, it needs human size and form. Thus humanoids. But, manipulation with hands, perception, intelligence, and autonomy are all important and difficult research problems that need to be addressed.”

That research is under way.

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Ninja Robots

Ninja Robot

Ninja Robot

Professor Shigeo Hirose’s Ninja Robots are designed to climb the exterior walls of high rise buildings and bridges to carry out inspections. Equipped with suction pads the robots can move from the ground to a vertical wall and even on to a ceiling. 

Professor Hirose, of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, is a pioneer in robotics in Japan.  He has been working in robotics for 35 years. His lab is crammed with prototypes and designs for robots that can walk, crawl, swim and jump

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Environmentally Friendly Cleaning Robot


The Chariot Robotics cleaning robot uses clean water under 43,000 pounds of pressure per square inch to strip paint from the hulls of ships while keeping the debris separated from the water used for cleaning so the waste doesn’t ruin the environment.

This robot was recently demonstrated to the US Navy just up the road from us in Norfolk on the Arleigh Burke.

Chariot Robotics Envirobot

Chariot Robotics Envirobot

A really cool, semi-autonomous robot doing a really dirty job!

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Computer Science Social Network

The Computer Science Social Network, CS2N has been launched by Carnegie Mellon University, a school known for its robotics program and curriciula.  Registration and access to the site is free.  Of note to scouts is the partnership between CMU and the BSA that delivers online robotics instruction and the Robotics Virtual World , Planet H99, where you can program virtual robots and real robots using the same code.  There’s plenty of instruction on the site as well.

BSA partnering with the CS2N

For scouts who don’t own any robotic equipment or who don’t have access to it, this free program and instruction would allow them to complete the requirements of the merit badge without spending money.  Luckily, we will have Mindstorm NXT robots to program and build, but this site is an excellent companion to the merit badge instruction provided by Troop 503.

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