Apr 29, 2008

LEGO Digital Designer (LDD): with some cool extra additions

I am sorry I have not blogged for a few months - I have been really busy with part authoring a book on LEGO MINDSOTRMS NXT coming soon. More on that in coming weeks!

If you visit the LEGO’s NXTLog web site regularly you would notice that increasing numbers of models now have a LXF file created with LEGO Digital Designer (LDD). LDD is a great computer aided design tool for designing your robots and creating building instructions for others. LDD has all the parts that comes with NXT Retail kit.

This week, there are some new library added to LEGO Digital Designer. The latest library update now includes the TECHNIC Snowmobile (including the tracks!!!), so now you have even more elements to work from.

Last time I blogged about LDD six months ago [see link], LEGO had just added the PF motors and other PF elements as part of the LEGO Creator 4957 Ferris Wheel and the cool 4958 Monster Dino - which was great. I hope to see parts from more and more TECHNIC models added to the library.

Since I have a Technic Snowmobile, I been playing with the LDD to see what I can create using the new Snowmobile parts - including the new red fenders.

However, for me the most exciting addition is the tracks. You need a bit of patience with it and it takes a while to get it exactly right with the hinge tool.

To use the latest library, just start the LDD (If you don’t have it, you can download it from here. LDD will automatically download the latest library.

If you are new to LDD, one of the really good unofficial resource can be found here.

Apr 26, 2008

255 Points in 4 Seconds on Power Puzzle!

Steve Hassenplug completes 6 missions in one run in less than 4 seconds... especially watch the flying Wave Turbine. The run is great and awesomely planned.


Mars Base Command... we have a problem...

I've received emails and verbal requests from teachers, parents, and students looking for something similar to my Mayan Adventure book and/or something for students to do after FLL or the school year ends. My solution - Mars Base Command.

Starting in June 2008 (maybe earlier), individuals or teams will be able to sign up for an immersive experience that combines building, programming and troubleshooting skills.

Check out the details here (and updates will always be added to the "Contributor Projects" tab near the top of the blog.)

Mayan Adventure activity

Reader Jessica Mallard., a 5th grade teacher from Wichita, Kansas, has provided me with a nice writeup about her recent Mayan Adventure. Her assistant and team mentor, Heather Jones, a senior in engineering at WSU had a Mayan Adventure day on Feb 9, 2008. Here are some pictures from their experience plus a link to download her Word document describing the event (4 pages of details). Her document is very detailed and might be useful to other teachers/coaches/parents who might want to do something similar.

Thank you Jessica and Heather, for making this author smile. I love to hear about kids and adults attempting the challenges from the book. It looks like the kids had fun and please tell them I said HELLO!


Link to Mayan Adventure Summary by Jessica Mallard


NXT Pygmy Elephant

Here's a final video of an animal from the NXT Zoo Book.

It's based on the pygmy elephant of Borneo.

Apr 25, 2008

HIQ Weekend 2008

On Saturday 19 April, a group of high intelligent people were gathering for a special weekend to do all sorts of activities. I’ve been asked to do a special workshop on LEGO MINDSTROMS.

14 kids in age 8 to 16 were challenged to build a robot that could collect 9 bars standing in the middle of an arena. Mindstorms was new to all the kids. Initially I explained how to build a small base robot (the 30 min retail box model) and how to do the base actions in NXT-G.
7 teams were building and programming robots for almost 5 hours.
The goal was to collect the pillars, of one color and bring them back to their base(corner). Points were given:

-1 point for pushing/ tipping the pillar over.
-3 points for bringing the pillar back to the base.
-30 points bonus, for bringing only one (of the three) colors back.
-12 points bonus for not toughing the walls of the arena.
- extra bonus points could be earned for added value (like sounds).

The best team was the Blue Bot Team with 15 points.

Considered that they had no MINDSTORMS experience at all, and 5 hours later they had build a variety of working robot, was really impressive.
Here is a presentation in dutch but with pictures.


FTC Questions

Sent the following questions to a few people and was told answers should be coming next week... stay tuned.

1. Will the HiTechnic Prototype Board be allowed so students can create their own sensors? (Probably not, but it would bridge the gap between FLL and FRC, you think?)

2. Will VEX be phased out slowly or discontinued in FTC altogether?

3. What types of expansion packs will be available and costs? (I am 95% certain I saw and heard about an expansion pack but let me confirm.)

4. Is this a new, improved NXT brick or the same one?

5. Li-Ion batteries or NiCad (or NiMh)?

6. What's the annual cost after the $900 investment? In FLL, you pay $250 once then pay $65 per year for the mat and parts. Is there an equivalent setup charge per year for FTC?

7. Can the kit be sold for non FTC related activities? And what is that price?

NXT Dog Sled Team

A design issue that I mention several times in the projects on www.nxtprograms.com is that of weight balance. To get a mobile robot to perform well, you need to get a good percentage of the total robot weight over the driven parts (powered wheels, legs, whatever), and keep weight over other parts that are just rolling or dragging to a minumum. Well, this Dog Sled Team project appears to set the record for the worst weight balance of any of my projects so far, with only about 10% of the total weight over the front legs of the dogs, which are trying to do all the work to drag the heavy sled. So how does it work? How do real dogs do it? Hmm, maybe there's a trick to it...

Apr 24, 2008

Dean Kamen, founder of FIRST, awarded the LEGO Prize

On the official LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT News page there's an announcement that Dean Kamen, the founder of FIRST (best known amongst LEGO aficionados for the FLL sub section), has been awarded the LEGO Prize for his passionate commitment to FIRST.

Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, Owner and Vice Chairman of LEGO, says
"We are particularly proud to be able to honor Dean Kamen for his personal and untiring commitment to child development and learning. [...] Dean Kamen plays an immensely important role in creating a better future."
The LEGO Prize was founded in 1985 by LEGO® and was last awarded in 1997. So this is a very particular honor for Mr. Kamen.

Random Musings on World Festival

* This year seemed to be "less hectic" in the pits and competition areas, but I think this was partially due to the way they had to spread out the events because of the tornado damage. I hope FIRST reps took note of how less easy crowds were able to move around and areas like the LEGO booth just didn't clog up like last year.

* Ralph Hempel gave a really nice demo that I caught bits and pieces of for his pbLua programming language. Time permitting, I think it's time for me to start investigating this option.

* FLL competition - okay, IMO, way too many perfect scores means it's time to increase the complexity. If I were designing the FLL competition, I'd add many more optional missions (such as the wave turbine) that give a mixture of points for doing different things. I'd add one "Mission Impossible" task on the board that takes a LOT of time but gives a LOT of points and is EXTREMELY difficult to accomplish. This would force those experienced teams to seriously consider attempting a high scoring event with an equally large chance to fail. Another discussion I had with some folks there was to possibly consider adding more trophies/awards for all-rookie teams. And finally, add a mission that exists on the other side's mat (maybe in either the rear right or rear left corners) that would involve a team's robot manipulating something outside their own area of operation.

* FTC - I can't really comment on the VEX changeover since I haven't had much to do with this specific competition, but talking with some of the test teams as well as many of the observers of the practice competitions using the new kit, I'd have to say that I heard a LOT more positive and supportive comments than negative. What negative comments I did hear were more related to the quirkiness of the new product, but as I understand beta hardware, that's supposed to be the case. Here's hoping the developers learned plenty during the event, with enough information for them to go back and finish polishing this new robot kit for next year. (ON a personal note - I love the look and feel of those aluminum parts and I REALLY want a kit of my own!)

* LEGO Booth - LEGO's booth this year had much more space, additional tables, and some very nice and new interactive elements such as the remote control helicopter and the blimp with the wireless video camera. You could tell by the kids' (and adults!) expressions that they had a fun time. LEGO reps were floating around all the time to answer questions and it was nice to watch the kids get pictures and autographs from Kjeld, owner of The LEGO Group. Plenty of giveaways, too - including the small NXT and RCX brick collectibles. Hold on to those RCX mini-bricks - only 1000 were made if I heard correctly.

* No Starch - Fay Rhodes, Chris Smith, Jonathan Daudelin, and I were fortunate to finally meet the Chief Editor of No Starch Press, Bill Pollock, who you can thank for the Idea Book, Zoo Book, and the Inventor's Guide. And that's just a start! No Starch has some other books on the way this year and their library is really growing.

* Growth - I don't have exact numbers, but based on talks given by Dean Kamen and a few others, it appears that FIRST and all the various competitions have no end in sight when it comes to growth. Dean Kamen and his FIRST staff are hard at work trying to find corporate, state, and country support, both financially and by people-skills, to keep the organization growing. There was also a nice delegation from Russia to oversee the events because apparently they are looking at growing FIRST over there, too.

* New NXT Products - yes, new products are coming. Can I talk about them? Some. HiTechnic has some announcements coming shortly so watch their website. There were also some "classified" products that were demo'd but a very powerful Non-Disclosure Agreement is blocking my keyboard (does the NDA prevent me from saying I'm under an NDA??? Hope not.)

* Junior MCP - yes, the rumors are true that LEGO was accepting applications at World Fest for a Junior MCP - I don't have a whole lot more to tell you and I don't know if the application period was only for WF or if they will open it up on their website (I'll look into it). The nice thing is that LEGO is seriously considering expanding the MCP to include its primary audience. That cannot be a bad thing.

* Ambassador AlphaRex - LEGO has two AlphaRex robots with small LEGO suitcases packed. I've got one of them (and he'll be starting his trip in Atlanta, GA) and I believe the other is going to Japan. These are going to be shipped across states, countries and continents (similar to the Olympic flag) in celebration of LEGO MINDSTORMS 10 year anniversary. More info to come.

* Weather - we had a great 3 days of weather. Nice temps outside, no rain, and plenty of outdoor activities for all. Being outside, though, was a little shock for many visitors because of all the storm damage from March 15th tornadoes in Atlanta. Even for an Atlanta-resident, it was hard to believe just how much damage occurred - most of the buildings within walking distance of the World Congress Center had visible damage on the outsides, most with wood over windows. (See Dave Parker's earlier post and photos for some examples of building damage.)

This was my 3rd World Festival and they keep getting better... I can't wait until next year.

Robot C Student Pack: A Brief Review


The activation process for the software is cumbersome and buggy. On the plus side, the tech support staff is unusually helpful.


1) An outstanding introduction to the RobotC language for the beginner, with the latest version of RobotC included.
2) A great example of applied programming. The student learns the language by programming the robot to do specific tasks, like going through mazes and navigating obstacle courses.
3) Outstanding video tutorials that provide step-by-step learning of the language and the tasks involved.
4) Helpful, printable worksheets that amplify the material provided in the video tutorials.
5) The price. Most MINDSTORMS products from Carnegie-Mellon come with a classroom license, which drives up the cost. This "RobotC Student Pack" is for a single user only, which makes it more economical than the classroom version.
6) Although the product is only advertised for Windows XP, the latest version works perfectly well on Vista.

People can, of course, purchase ROBOTC for a cheaper price as a stand-alone product. But for those who want graduated tutorials and handouts to go along with their software, $90 is a fair price to pay and worth the cost.

The RobotC Student pack is available here.

Apr 23, 2008

Neural Network Manager for the NXT

Christoph Bartneck, Assistent Professor at the Eindhoven University of Technology, has blogged about a new Java-based application with a graphical user interface that "allows Lego fans to easily create, manage and train a neural network which can be exported and used in any program to be designed to run on the LEGO NXT."

From the web site:
"The total system comprises of two main parts, a UI running on the NXT and the Neural Network Manager running on the PC. The Neural network is created by the Neural Network Manager and can once trained be exported to a Java file that should be compiled and uploaded to the NXT."
Now, doesn't that sound interesting?

Another World Festival Picture

I brought my computer-controlled rover that can transmit video from an onboard camera (posted about here) to the World Festival to show at the LEGO booth. Some of the children there had a lot of fun learning how it worked and driving it around the pit area outside the booth, using the camera to see where it was going. This little guy especially enjoyed it... I love the look on his face. :-) We were trying to drive it out one side of the booth and navigate it through suddenly-dangerous shoes (you know, those gigantic monsters that can crunch NXT robots at will?) to the other side.


Mini NXT Robot

Well, it didn't take my younger brother long to use a mini NXT brick to create a (very) mini NXT robot...

Now if only there was some way to make that thing work... :)


Apr 22, 2008

Details of FTC Kit

Special thanks to Dave Parker for taking some great closeup photos of the new FTC kit (I'm a very poor photographer - just not my thing) that I'm including here. My one photo of the kit was too blurry for use. Be sure to read Dave Parker's post (right below this one) for more details about the kit and the competition design.

Anyway, as you can see, you get about 100+ aluminum parts (I believe the name they are giving to these components is Tetrix, but don't hold me to that). In addition, you get the NXT Education Base Set, 3 software packages (NXT-G, RobotC, and NI LabView), 2 Li-Ion battery packs, 8 wheels (2 different sizes), numerous gears (some about 1/4" thick), remote control, 8 motors (2 distinct types), 5 NXT sensors, special connectors for connecting Technic to Aluminum (see photo), and 2 special devices from HiTechnic that connect the electronics to the Brick.

The price that I was given is $900 and I was told orders would be taken starting in May and deliveries of kits in September.

Regarding use of VEX kits - there were LOTS of conversation in the pit area and the LEGO Ed booth, but I was not able to get an official answer from LEGO or FIRST on this issue; I heard from other sources, but I would prefer to get an official answer on that issue and will try and do so this week.

The Tetrix pieces are very strong - and the variety is awesome. They've developed a really nice little hole pattern that gives a LOT of flexibility for connecting Tetrix AND Technic pieces as many angles. They have a special name for the little piece that allows connection between the two but I cannot seem to recall it (another item for my To Do list). This piece is required because, as I understand it, the law of the land is "LEGO pieces shalt not touch its unpure metal brethren" (Yes, that's the exact words of the loud voice I heard booming in the LEGO booth - jk).

Speed? Well, Steve Hassenplug has a video that I hope he'll be sharing soon but if not I've got the low-quality video that I'll see about posting that shows some of its maneuverability and speed. It'll go.

I have to say, it's very cool to see an NXT Brick sitting on top of a medium sized metal robot - and the various robot designs I saw (about 10 or so) were all different and demonstrated that designers aren't going to get stuck with a limited range of chassis forms.

Finally, I did see a small picture of the version of the kit that will be available to the general public - it doesn't come with the NXT Ed Base Set and it has fewer Tetrix parts, but the price is also lower, I believe. Software is also not included now that I think about it. (It truly was information overload and this blogger will try and get better about taking notes in a notebook in the future - but it really does feel like being a kid in a candy store and attention spans go to zero with all the displays and conversations going on.)

Some of my questions which I don't have answered yet but will try and get some:

1. Will the HiTechnic Prototype Board be allowed so students can create their own sensors? (Probably not, but it would bridge the gap between FLL and FRC, you think?)

2. Will VEX be phased out slowly or discontinued in FTC altogether?

3. What types of expansion packs will be available and costs? (I am 95% certain I saw and heard about an expansion pack but let me confirm.)

Got more questions? Post them as comments here and I'll see about finding some answers this week.


Pictures from 2008 FIRST Championship

I have posted several snapshots from my trip to the 2008 FIRST Championship, including the FLL World Festival, FTC Championship, new FTC Showcase, and FRC Championships here.

Fana'Briques 2008

A Date to prebook: also this year the Fana' Briques will take place in Rosheim (Alsace, France) , this time on the 28th and 29th of June.
To satisfy the increased crowd of visitors, this year the new location has changed to a place that offers an exhibition space of 1400 m2 (double the size of last year's event).
Again, also the third run of Fana'Briques Veranstaltung will be focused on the topic LEGO® in Locomotion: there will be an attempt for a speed world record with a LEGO® bullet train (TGV/ICE), a large DCC controlled roadway system, Mini- and Maxifigs at the Olympic Games and a building challenge for children as well as a particularly large Great Ball Contraption (targetting the size of 100 modules).

Rosheim in the Alsace is always worth a sojourn - have a look at the Fana'Briques page and make a note for the weekend mentioned in your calendar.

NXT and Firefighting

ROBOT magazine Issue 11 has a great article on the 2008 Fort Collins Robot Fire Fighting Challenge. the 1st place winner, Physignathus, is a robot designed using the NXT and various sensors PLUS a nice water jet/cannon for putting out a flame.

You can read more about it here and here.

Apr 21, 2008


Here's an image of the RCX and NXT mini bricks - the image is printed on the brick and is not a sticker.

World Festival - See you next year

Packing up and going home...

More Pictures

More comments on World Fest to come...

Hope you enjoy the images... I'll be posting some commentary soon on the event.


Steve Hassenplug and FTC kit

Pictures of the new FTC kit - Steve Hassenplug always manages to push poor robots to the limit, with bits and pieces left behind... this day was no different.

More information on the FTC robot kit and competition has been posted on the FTC blog here.

Team Mascot

One of the more interesting mascots... anyone know which team this "being" belongs to?

Dean Kamen and Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen

Jonathan Daudelin and I were able to get a photo opportunity with both Dean Kamen and Owner and Vice Chairman of the Board, the LEGO Group, Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen.

(Left to Right, Kjeld, Jim, Dean, Jonathan)

Houston, Texas Team

Linda Barrington and Team 299 BEARBOTICS from Houston, TX.

Taiwan Team

Team from Taiwan #8110

Team from Japan

Japanese Team #8080

Chris Anderson, Editor-in-Chief of WIRED magazine, was at FIRST - he gave a nice discussion/demonstration of his UAV (yellow airplane). You can find more information about his creation at www.diydrones.com

NXT MUP members

Among the MUP members at FLL were (left to right):

Steven Hassenplug
John Barnes (HiTechnic)
Soren Lund (LEGO)
David Schilling
Ralph Hempel (pbLua)

Team from Toronto

An all-girls team from Toronto and crew...

Enjoyed visiting with them and if any of the team sees this picture, please post a comment and let us know a little about your week in Atlanta.

LEGO Booth at FIRST World Festival

Pictures of the LEGO booth at World Festival...

We had over a dozen or so LEGO employees working the booth, along with some MCP and The NXT Step blog contribs at the booth.

Blog contributors that made the trip include Fay Rhodes, Jonathan Daudelin, Chris Smith, Richard Li, Larry Langellier, Bryan Bonahoom, Jay Kinzie, Dave Parker and myself, Jim Kelly.
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