Older blog entries for tbenedict (starting at number 13)

Our club had its third meeting last week. Two mini sumo robots and two line-followers (with one doing double-duty). There was a lot of enthusiasm for the mini sumo competition, and it looks like we'll have more active builders over the next month. Four people have declared an intention to, and two have already purchased hardware. I'm hoping we can hook a fifth.

I'm building a second mini-sumo, a stock Mark III, which I'll be using to tune up new changes to Shallow Blue. Once that's done the sensors and boards will be ripped off the new 'bot so the 4WD platform I'm building out can be finished. Not sure if that'll happen by the next meeting, but I can hope.

The rest of the stripped Mark III, a chassis two servos and two wheels, will be outfitted with an R/C receiver for remote control ala Battlebots. This isn't in an effort to develop an R/C mini sumo class, but as a way to get people interested in the club. We've got two public appearances coming up in December, and being able to hand someone a transmitter and say, "Want to try your hand against an autonomous robot?" may possibly draw new people into the club. Have to see.

The rest of the meeting went well. It looks like we may have a FIRST Robotics team forming up in town, and there was a call for mentors. There should also be several Ballbot teams forming up before January, and possibly at least one underwater ROV team as well. In addition it looks like we're getting a fair number of "big kids" interested in tackling some larger projects. Should be a busy year!

In response to svo's post about the steam engine (nice engine, by the way!) I'd say a good, solid confirmed on that one! My first steam engine was made entirely on the lathe, not using a mill at all, even for all the little rectangly bits and drill patterns. So it's nice to see the opposite situation holds true as well.

So here's a challenge... First, some background:

A recent series of articles in Machinist's Workshop (or Home Shop Machinist... I take both and don't distinguish much between them) described a 4-cycle gas engine called the EVIC Twin. What sets this thing apart is that it uses electronic solenoids for the valves, and is entirely controlled (throttle and all) from a PIC.

Now for the challenge:

An oscillating steam engine isn't the most efficient piece of equipment on the planet. (My first steam engine was an oscillator, too.) This is why oscillating engines were almost never used on locomotives. This is also why all manner of valve gear was developed over the years. So if the idea of the EVIC was extended to steam, and a steam engine was put entirely under microprocessor control, what would such a beastie be like?

Any takers? Anyone actually want to build one?

In answer to bear on building cheap robots: It always depends on where the bits and pieces come from. Good example: I've got about fifteen steppers lying around on my bench. They came from scrapped floppy drives. Cost? $0 monetary outlay, though as you point out a fair bit of time was spent removing them. Another example: Last time I took trash to the transfer station, someone had dumped a bag full of R/C toys. I picked 'em up. One just needed a battery charge and some contact cleaner on the power switch. (Free toy for the kids!) Another had a fried transmitter. Question is, do I fix or replace the transmitter, or just gut the car and stick a microcontroller in it? $0 monetary outlay, and not much more than that for time invested so far. Offroad chassis for a RoboMagellan project? Possibly so. (Though my kids would kill me if they heard me say that about "their" toy.)

Problem with this approach is it doesn't scale. If you're doing commercial robots, you can't rely on surplus or salvage. This is one reason why commercial robots tend to be a lot more expensive than what can be built at home, even given similar construction methods. It also doesn't give any gurantee of identical spares. In that stack of steppers on my bench, only two are of identical make and model.

One more question to ask when estimating cost: Do you count the cost of items previously purchased? For example, the line follower I'm building is getting its entire drive train out of spares from my ROV and mini-sumo. Total cost? I could say zero since the parts are just lying around. Total cost for someone trying to duplicate what I'm building? Considerably more, especially since I didn't buy the motors as single units.

I guess what all this boils down to is this: Do people estimate cost based on their out-of-pocket expenses, or do people estimate cost based on what someone else would have to spend in order to reproduce what they built?

Even putting it so simply still leaves you with hairy questions. For example, do you add in tooling costs? I've got a complete machine shop at home and a decent electronics shop as well. I don't add in machining or tooling costs, but someone trying to reproduce what I do would have to.

I'd be curious to hear what other people's practices are when they estimate cost on a project.


Our club had its second meeting. Bigger turnout, and three mini sumo bots (including mine). Shallow Blue got its butt thoroughly kicked. I've got a list of changes to make before the next meeting: one software, one hardware, and one electronic. Good mix.

Turns out there aren't rules for the line following event yet, so I'm planning for right angle turns on the high speed line follower I'm making. People laughed when I said I was after two meters per second. Fine by me. I doubt I'll reach that. But it's good to have a goal, and it'd be a riot if I could hit that, even if it's only on the straightaways.

The club issued two challenges to its members: Make a robot that can track a straight black line across a white field, and/or make a robot that'll stay on a table. One, of course, is in preparation for building a line-follower. The other, of course, is to get people thinking about how to keep a mini-sumo bot in the ring.

The next meeting should be fun!


In reply to andycamach's question, I use an OOPic (obviously), and I've got a 68HC11 controller I built years ago that I'm about to put back into service. The next flavor I'd like to get into is the Atmel AVR series. They're inexpensive, powerful, and have nice development tools. Can't beat it. But I'm not going to get rid of either of the other two.

On another topic, I ran face-first into the whole idea of a wire gauge limiting the amount of current you can move through it. I replaced the tether on my ROV with a smaller gauge, more flexible tether. Voila I lost half the available power. DOH! I swapped back to the beefier but stiffer tether.

I think I'm running into a fundamental limitation of small ROVs. A small motor can still draw a lot of current, so the wiring still needs to be beefy. So you're still dragging around a thick tether. So you need beefier motors. So... There's a point of diminishing returns.

In an ideal world I'd put the batteries on-board and not run a powered tether at all. An RS-232 or RS-485 connection would make for an extremely lightweight tether, but it would require brains-on-board as well. At that point I'm out of the micro ROV end of things and would do better to go ahead and build a larger platform. That's for the next ROV project.


My copy of Dennis Clark's OOPic book finally came in. Yaaay! Only four days later than Amazon thought, but that's one of the prices for living on an island: slow mail. I'm about halfway through it. Good information for anyone using OOPic processors. Lots of info that's not readily available online.

I had to re-arrange the ballast on my mini-ROV. Given the density of stainless, it took a LOT of washers and nuts to make up enough mass for ballast. I swapped it all out for a slab of brass I had lying around, which was drilled to screw into the threaded holes in the motor mount. It wound up being heavier than I needed, so I added more buoyancy. The extra mass makes it a little easier to maneuver, given the overly stiff tether. Still need a better tether...

I'm starting design work on the line follower. Propulsion will be the same, regardless of the rules. So I'm starting with that. I've got several 9kRPM motors lying around I'd like to use. I want to try building an o-ring belt drive system since changing pulley ratios is a simple matter of making a new set of pulleys on the lathe. I'll report on that as it happens.

For the sensor assembly and chassis I've got some 1/2" white nylon sheet (aka $3 cutting board from the local grocery store). It's fairly low friction, so a sensor pad that would double as a "third wheel" on a two-wheel robot makes sense. For that matter, the entire chassis could be cut out of a single piece of nylon. It's not my favorite material to cut (Delrin would be way better) but it's cheap, it's locally available, it's got nice friction characteristics, and it would block ambient light from the line sensors. I'll report on this as it happens, too.

The layout of the line follower sensors will depend heavily on the rules for the competition. Right angle turns would necessitate having sensors forward and outboard that could detect the turn in time for the wheel motors to turn the bot. I won't start on that until the rules have been clarified.

Next Tuesday is the second meeting of our local robot club. In addition to seeing the rules for the competition in Hilo, I'm also excited to see who shows up. School is now in session, so I hope we get a good percentage of the teachers and kids who will be participating in academic competitions this year. Time will tell. This will also be the first time my mini-sumo gets in the ring with another mini-sumo bot. It's funny... I know I'll lose, but I'm excited anyway. At least now I'll have some idea of what I need to do to make it competitive.

Should be fun.


The ROV is done. I installed a two AA battery holder to supply power, and everything ran fine. Buoyancy was added in the form of foam pipe insulation and zip-ties (though it takes on some water during use, and changes the slight positive buoyancy to slight negative buoyancy... not so good.) Ballast was added by tapping two of the holes in the plexi and installing two #8 screws and enough washers to balance it out. If I do change out the buoyancy for something else, changing ballast to match is dead-easy.

The only real gotcha is the tether: It's too stiff for the mass of the ROV. Since the current levels are so low (3V at 1.6A) I can switch to lighter wire and get more flexibility out of it. This is still in the R&D phase, though I've got an old serial mouse cord I'm going to try out.

The motors are quite strong, and can propel the little thing plenty fast. I can't wait to replace the tether with lighter wire and take it out for a spin in some open water. (Well, more open than the five gallon bucket I'm using.)

I need to step up my efforts on my mini-sumo. I found out there's a competition in Hilo in December, and one of the events is mini-sumo. (The other is line following, which I also want to build a bot for, preferably using the aging 68HC11 MiniBoard I've got on my bench. But I need to see the rules first to see if I'm dealing with right angle turns.)

The big mods to the mini sumo will be side and back-looking IR proximity sensors, and to move the center edge sensor on the front scoop to the back of the bot. This will require a fair bit of re-coding on my part, but should make it survive a little longer in the ring.

Can't wait!


Another big thanks to Botnerd for certifying me as a Journeyman. I appreciate it.

Update on the ROV: I fabricated the plexiglass motor mount, got the motors fitted, wired up the tether and the control panel, and would've finished except it was late (10pm) I had to get up early for work (6am) and I had no #8 screws to mount the terminal strip for power distribution (RATS!)

The frame fabrication went great. Seriously low-tech, but here's the deal: I drew the ROV up in Rhino3D (very nice 3D modeling and CAD package), converted the frame to a flat 2D shape, and printed it 1:1. The printout was stuck to a sheet of plexiglass using Super77 adhesive. The trick is to spray the paper with a thin coat and let it sit long enough to get tacky. The idea is to wind up with the consistancy of a Post-It. Once stuck on the plexi it was time to cut.

Holes came first. I used normal twist drills. With light pressure at the bottom of the hole you can avoid most chip-out problems, but overheating was an issue. At one point I made some spade drills for drilling plexi, but didn't have one in this size. All the holes were drilled to take a #8-32 tap. I didn't wind up tapping any, but that way if I want secure threaded anchor points for ballast, I've got them.

The shape itself was cut out on a scroll saw. I used too aggressive a blade, so I got some chipping. A finer skip-tooth blade with reversed teeth on the bottom would've been better. I even have them, so I'm kicking myself. But not hard. It's a prototype.

The 3D forming was done using a heat gun and a wooden form. My "form" consisted of a bunch of 2x4 and 2x2 lumber and some quickclamps. Cheesy, but I got nice 90-degree bends in the plexi. Only problem is the wood surface isn't smooth and now I have wood grain patterns on my plexi. Ah well.

The frame itself came out great and the motors zip-tied right into place. Wiring the umbilical was a snap, and with all the holes in the plexi there were plenty of places to anchor the motor mount into the ROV frame.

Only thing left is power. Then it's time to test!


A big thanks to marev for certifying me as an Apprentice and to steve for certifying me as a Journeyman. I appreciate your trust in me.

With the certification from steve I should probably move my ROV build out of my blog and into a project, but the thing's almost finished. I'm going to go ahead and finish it up in my blog, and put my next robot into a project.

The props came in and were mounted last night. The only real gotcha: the motors have a 2mm shaft and the props have a 1/8" bore. Making Delrin shaft adapters took about five minutes, and the newly-propellered motors run great, even in water.

Rather than focus on the ROV, I'd like to make a plug for having a home shop that includes at least a lathe and a drill press. I could try to make a case of having tools pay for themselves, but I won't. I haven't made money off my tools yet, and I've easily spent more on them than any other single hobby including photography.

The real pay-off for having good tools is the ease with which you can do other things. Making those shaft adapters without a lathe would've been painful, at best. With a lathe it was so easy I didn't even slow down. To date that lathe has made ROV parts, robot parts, rocket parts, optics mounts, toys for the kids in the neighborhood, custom tooling, even a steam engine. The list is too long to write out. In monetary terms I've never made back the $750 I spent on it six years ago. But I have to think it's payed for itself time and time again in what my shop can now do.

If you don't have a lathe and a drill press in your shop, read up on them. Price them. See if maybe they're something to consider. The online communities for home shop machinists are very active and on the whole extremely supportive. Even with zero machining knowlege, I've seen people tool up and get going in ways that are simply amazing.

I wouldn't give them up for the world.


P.S. And if you thought a lathe was fun, you're going to have a blast with a mill!

Still waiting on the props (perhaps today!) and my copy of Dennis Clark's OOPic book. But I did get a chance to do some more work on the ROV and on my Mark III.

I ran the motors while hooked up to a digital power supply and RTD for measuring temperature. Driving at 3.0V it drew 0.38A no-load and ran at 34C (base temp 25C). Stalled at 3.0V it peaked out the power supply, drawing 2.18V at 2.2V. Basically the power supply clamped and wouldn't let it go dead-short.

At 6.0V it drew 0.52A and heated up to 46C pretty quickly. My guess is closer to 50C, but I didn't leave the motor running past five minutes. Since stalling at 3V peaked out the limits on the supply, I didn't try stalling at 6V.

With the motor submerged in water, 3.0V drew 1.8A with no measurable increase in temperature (it's heat-sinked to the water, so I expected this.) A 6.0V it drew 2.2A in the water.

What I take this to mean: Motors draw current like nuts when wet. So I can't put this ROV under microprocessor control very easily. For the money I'd spend on a beefy enough H-bridge to handle the current, I could just as well build dry enclosures for the motors and run off the 1A H-bridges I've got on both my micros. I have yet to try these motors with props in the water, but the requirements are only going to go up, not down.

Running at 3V still produced plenty of torque. So long as the props don't totally stall the motors, I'm going to under-drive them and see if I can prolong the motors' lives a little longer.

On the Mark III OOPic, I scaveneged more stuff and made more diagnostic tools. I had some micro switches removed from some mice that I soldered directly to some headers to plug into the Mark III Sensor Board. The jacks are arranged just like the Handyboard digital I/O jacks (which also match the ones on the Miniboard and the 6.270 board). I have a Miniboard, so this is handy. These went in the toolbox with the diagnostic LEDs I wired up to headers. Makes troubleshooting a breeze.

I'm sending out the announcement today for our club's second meeting. This lights the fire under my butt to get this ROV finished. I'd like to demonstrate it at this club meeting and see who's interested in building one. I also need to build out a mini sumo ring so if anyone else brings their sumo bot we can throw them in and let them go at it.


4 older entries...

Share this page