Jul 29, 2011

I'd Rather Be Building Robots has moved!

Xander wrote:
" Hi and welcome to the new site. No, I’ve not been hijacked, kidnapped or otherwise subverted. This is the new home for “I’d Rather Be Building Robots”. Since that whole sentence would make for a really terrible domain name, I did some brain storming for a new name and I came up empty. Good thing my dad was in the advertising business for 25 years in a past life and he came up with “botbench.com”. "

He will keep us informing about the new and exciting stuff as he was before
More interesting will be his all new Sensor Compendium. looking forward as the Go-To source for everything you wanted to know about sensors for the Mindstorms NXT platform and more.

The old site will be set up to redirect to this one, so you should update your bookmarks, RSS feeds, etc.

Some older posts may look a little wonky with the new theme but you’ll just have to forgive Xander for not going back over about 250 articles to check if they were OK.

Jul 26, 2011

Mindstorms Academy?

An article in the most recent WIRED magazine got me to thinking about alternative methods (maybe even better?) for delivering training related to both robot building and programming. I was sort-of familiar with Khan Academy (I had watched a video or two a few years ago when someone told me about it) but never truly understood what I was seeing (and hearing) from the website.

If you're not familiar with Khan Academy please pause here and simply read the article and then watch this video... it will get you up to speed much better than I could possibly do so in a paragraph or two. After you've watched the video (or not if you're familiar with KA and its concept), hopefully you'll have an understanding of how the videos work and what the goals of KA are longterm.

I'm not here to debate the pros or cons of KA -- the site and its methodology are the subject of much debate already so let's not add to the noise here... my purpose for this post is not to discuss KA's videos but to pose a question to The NXT Step's audience as a whole:

Would it be possible to provide to those new to Mindstorms(teachers, students, parents) a collection of short videos (5 to 10 minutes max) that would introduce concepts such as The Loop block, Line Following and Object Detection?

Just as KA has a couple dozen categories (Pre-Algebra, Calculus, Economics, etc.), I can imagine a similar group of categories such as Programming Blocks and Basic Movements and Advanced Logic Control... the list goes on. The idea would be to create a standard format for how the videos look and how they are narrated... maybe even some standards on video format thrown in for consistency.

Just as many students who use the KA videos can go back over a difficult topic as many times as they like (without anyone looking over his/her shoulder) and review the content before moving on, I can imagine a similar set of videos being developed where relationships between videos are tagged so that novices don't watch a more advanced video before they've watched (and hopefully learned) the basic videos that contain the information the more technical subjects build upon.

Don't get me wrong -- I still think books are a great method for learning. But imagine rather than reading a page or two that describes how to drop in a MOVE block and tweak it for the various settings -- forward, reverse, power, coast, etc. -- that you can instead queue up a video that maybe shows the block being dragged onto the work area, a few tweaks made on the left side of the screen and a Tribot or other robot on the right side demonstrating the code in action. I also think there's something a bit more personal in having a narrator explain a concept, but probably not everyone will agree.)

Let's assume for a second that the video concept is favorable and enough people voice support. What next? I'm not a project manager, but I imagine that there would need to be some sort of formalized method for managing the videos -- this would likely need to be an individual or small group that would be responsible for not only assigning video topics but also viewing and critiquing them before they are released in the wild. (Of course, a "beta" video could also be released for feedback from the community.)

There are other matters that would need to be considered and decided on:

1. How would video of the NXT software be recorded?
2. Would the video capture software need to be consistent or could a list of acceptable applications be selected?
3. What language would the video narrator need to speak? I dislike assuming English, but then again this is an English-based blog and the majority of the audience are English-speakers.
4. Where would the videos be stored/hosted?

There may also be copyright/legal issues that I'm likely unfamiliar with, but given the purpose of these videos would be to promote Mindstorms and grow its user base, I would hope that there would be ways around these issues, especially if the goal isn't profit-minded.

There are thousands upon thousands of videos out there that show viewers how to solder, how to wire up all kinds of electronics, how to program in dozens of languages, and so many more. And yes, there are already videos out there that demo how to do various things with the NXT kit and its software, but what's lacking is organization and logical planning of the topics to be covered.

I'm very impressed with Khan Academy (and I'm even re-learning my Chemistry a bit at a time with the KA videos on the subject), and I can't help but think that the methodology he uses is perfectly suited for teaching Mindstorms.


Jul 25, 2011

NXTLOG Explorer Bot Challenge

There are robot explorers all over the world and even on Mars! We are challenging you this summer to invent the NXT great generation of explorer robots with your MINDSTORMS NXT.

Will your robot explore the desert, the mountains, the city, the jungle, the depths of the ocean, the coldest space, or a place only you could imagine?
How will your robot sense obstacles in its environment?
How will it survive?
Will your robot do a job?
Will it collect data or samples?
Will it interact with new species?
Let us know!

Check out the Award Criteria below to see what type of Explorer Bot you want to create. There's no limit on amount of LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT sensors, LEGO MINDSTORMS RCX sensors, motors, NXT programmable bricks, HiTechnic sensors, Codatex RFID sensors, or Bluetooth communication you can use.

All entries must be tagged "explorerbot." and must be submitted by August 31, 2011.

Awards will be given in 4 areas. Award winners will be featured on LEGO MINDSTORMS News.

1) ALL TERRAIN EXPLORER: Can your Explorer Bot shift modes to tackle all types of tough terrain? Can it move just as well on snow and ice as it can through desert sands or a thick vegetation? Show us how flexible your bot can be!

2) THE SPECIALIST: We want to see an Explorer Bot that is the best in its field at exploring its specialty. What will your specialist bot focus on?

3) THE STEALTH BOT: Some Explorers need to do their observations and explorations without being detected. How quietly can your bot move? How can it camouflage itself to its environment? How does it collect its data?

4) DATA MINE: How does your Explorer Bot collect data about its explorations and share them with the world? How can you creatively us your MINDSTORMS NXT kit to do that?

read more

What will you make?

Jul 24, 2011

NXT swarm robots

There's a new project by Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Academy (known as creators of the NXT programming language RobotC): swarm robots that are communicating via the NXTBee hardware by dexter Industries.
In the following video, the NXT robots collaborate to group around a leader robot:

More details can be found on the associated entry in the RobotC blog.

Jul 23, 2011

FIRST promotion video

This is a nice video summarizing the idea behind FIRST. The video features actor Morgan Freeman, FIRST founder Dean Kamen and president Obama.

Jul 22, 2011

Interfacing Android with LEGO NXT

Following the same theme as a lot of other recent posts, I have been doing a lot of Android development for my IB Computer Science class. Naturally, I continued to tie Android with the NXT. Initially, Bluetooth was not an option for our outdated G1 development phone*, so I developed this simple solution:
Just a simple solution! For when the situation arises that Bluetooth is not an option, or Arduino board interfacing is not available.

*Fortunately, the Bluetooth API's were back-ported for use on 1.6


Jul 21, 2011

Dexter 6DOF-IMU

6DOF-IMU you say???  What's that?

Well the folks over at Dexter Industries look like they are putting the finishing touches to a new sensor.  The IMU stands for Inertial Measurement Unit and the 6DOF means 6 Degrees Of Freedom.  What does that mean in normal speak?

Well in layman terms the sensor will be able to not only be able to measure movement in the left/right forward/backward and up/down directions, but will also be able to measure the amount of rotating in all the same directions (can anyone come up with a better explanation?)

Xander over at 'I'd Rather be Building Robots' has a prototype (complete with ridiculously bright LED) and is putting it through it's paces.  Can't wait to see what's possible with this sensor!

dSolar powering an 8041 Race truck

Paul Maas has nicely added in a Dexter Industries dSolar panel onto an 8041 Race Truck.  I couldn't find any details other than the photos in his album, but it sure looks great.  The dSolar panel allows him to run the NXT and motors without the need for batteries at all.

Why?  As Paul quite eloquently puts it - "Because we can!"

Jul 17, 2011

New Barometric sensor from HiTechnic

The relentless sensor makers of HiTechnic have released a new sensor for the NXT: the barometric sensor.
It can be used for measuring both the atmospheric pressure as well as its temperature. From the web page:

"The pressure value from the sensor is in 1/1000th of inch Mercury (inHg) and the temperature is in 1/10th degree Celsius. The NXT-G block allows the NXT to read the pressure in either inHg or hPa (hectopascals) and temperature in either Celsius or Fahrenheit degrees. Once adjusted for current conditions, the block can also calculate altitude in feet or meters."
As usual, HiTechnic also provides support for the new sensor in NXT-G as well as in RobotC.

By experience I'm positive that other NXT platforms like leJOS NXJ or NXC will integrate support soon, too.

Jul 14, 2011


On the MINDSTORMS website under "news" a new robot story is posted as it is told by Marc-André Bazergui & team about "Making a Robotic Model of a Robot".

Now, this version 5 transforms from a cube shape to a fully articulated well proportioned look alike of the famous Disney/Pixar WALL-E®. The first public appearance of this robot was at BrickWORLD Chicago, 2011.

read the full story here [Link]

NXShield - a shield for TEEMINO

Maybe this could not seem directly LEGO MINDSTORMS related, or even blasphemous to the purists, but the secret Android device published in a previous post is not a secret anymore!
Its name is Teemino, a device that can be controlled by an Android ADK compatible phone.
This means that your Android version should be 3.1 or 2.3.4 to have the Open Accessory support.

Soon also the NXShield will be available: it will allow the Teemino to control up to 4 NXT Servo Motors and read 4 digital and analogic sensors.
Here's a video to see it in action (impatient people should skip to 5:20)

Jul 13, 2011

NXTBee - NXT-G Blocks

Andy over at Milluzzi Labs - http://08milluz.wordpress.com/ has just released some NXT-G blocks for use with the Dexter Industries NXTBee sensors.

Not sure what the NXTBee is? Basically it's Wireless communication for the NXT!

  • Fast, long distance wireless communications for the NXT.
  • Communicate Far: Send data over 1 KM away.
  • Communicate Fast: High speed communication between NXT's and other devices.
  • Communicate Wide: Talk to multiple NXTs, other devices and robots.

Soooooooo... What can you do with an NXTBee?  Here are a few quick videos of what some people have managed.  What would you do?

Jul 12, 2011

leJOS NXJ 0.9 is out

One and a half year after the last release, since mid of May a new version of leJOS NXJ is out, the Java platform for LEGO® MINDSTORMS NXT.
leJOS NXJ is one of the most complete development and runtime environments for advanced NXT robotic programs out there and is used not only by many NXT aficionados but also by a lot of schools and universities for teaching robotics and programming. In case you are into Object-Orientated Programming also for your NXT, it might be the platform of choice for you.
The new release includes
"preliminary Android OS support, a new icon-based menu system, updating the Java language to support such things as generics, and nanosecond support [..,] many new classes to support new sensors, as well as reworking the navigation API to accomodate different robot types, object detection, and path finding."
Have a look at the web site. leJOS NXJ is Open Source and can be downloaded and used for free.

Addendum: There's also a new version 0.9.0 of the leJOS NXJ plug-in for Eclipse available. For details, see here.

Jul 9, 2011

LEGO Shuttle signed by NASA astronauts

How awesome is this!  The LEGO Shuttle (that our own Bazmarc has been a part of) has been at the Kennedy Space center as part of the celebrations for the final shuttle launch.

But it gets better, the model itself has been signed by some NASA astronauts!

Congrats Andrew, Marc-Andre and John!
Edit: Pics taken from Andrew's blog - http://08milluz.wordpress.com/

Robot Sundae maker

The good people over at Tufts University (the home of the RoboLab software) have created a nifty Robotic sundae maker as part of their summer intern project.

More info on the trials and tribulations to make it happen can be found at their website

It also have a great collection of photos documenting the process.

Jul 7, 2011

theNXTstep Forums

The Bad News: 
Unfortunately due to a number of reasons we have decided to shut down the the old NXTstep forums :(
(Relax, the blog is not going anywhere and we have a few great new features coming up!)

The Good News:
It will remain as read only, so none of the fantastic conversations and discussion are lost.
We are encouraging anyone interested in being a part of the discussions around all things NXT to head on over to the MindBoards forum (This is where we all hang out anyway).  It is currently run by Brian Davis, Xander Soldaat, John Hansen and Steve Hassenplug, all absolute legends in the MINDSTORMS community

Take me to be nostalgic and sentiental at the old NXTstep forums

Jul 6, 2011

MoonBots 2 finalists announced

The Google Lunar X PRIZE and LEGO Group are pleased to announce the twenty finalists for MoonBots 2.0, a global educational contest.

Top 20 Finalists

2011 LEGO Odyssey- California, US
Anthem-a-Tronics- Arizona, US
DragonBots- Santiago, Chile
Iron Reign- Texas, US
LegoAces- Ohio, US
Lehi Moonstormers- Utah, US
Lunar LegoBots- Tennessee, US
Lunar Lords- Washington, US
Lunar Scouts- Virginia, US
Molokai Mahina 2.0- Hawaii, US
Moonwalk- New Jersey, US
New Hartford RoboSpartans- New York, US
Pi In The Sky- Virginia, US
Q.E.D.- North Carolina, US
Raider Robotix- New Jersey, US
Say Watt?- New Jersey US
Team Just Ducky- Minnesota, US
Techno Inventors- Subang Jaya, Malaysia
The Pink Team- Florida, US
X-Treme Team- California US

Good luck to you all!

Do you want to read more:
The Launch Pad

Jul 5, 2011

Review of Technic Unimog 8110

Conchas at TechnicBricks has posted an excellent review of the new LEGO TECHNIC 8110 Unimog. It's the largest set in TECHNIC history. Find the review with plenty of pictures and videos here.

The Unimog itself looks like a great model with lots of functions. And once you're done playing with the main model, it seems this set will be a very useful parts pack for your NXT robots...

Jul 1, 2011


MINDSENSORS has designed this shield that will allow Arduino to replace *ehm* to be integrated into the LEGO MINDSTORMS system.

It will have 4 NXT motor ports, 4 NXT sensor ports and several RC servo motor ports. The NXShield will attach to an Arduino Duemilanove or Uno or similar Arduino clones. (Picture shown here with a Duemilanove)
The programming for the NXShield will be on Arduino, using usual Arduino C/C++ programming environment. There will be only one I2C port, so you can use multiple sensors on the bus only if they have different addresses.
Another cool Android-related device will be announced on July 8th... What will it be?

Brickworld 2011 - postscript

The definition of a good LEGO convention is one with amazing MOCs, great events & contests, fun friendly people, and innovative ideas at every turn.

The definition of a great LEGO convention is all the above, with a lot less sleep.

Brickworld 2011 has come and gone, and I wasn't able to blog from the event, because to be honest there was just too many other interesting things going on. There was a huge model of The Love Boat (with hidden scenes from other movies... like Jaws, Snakes on a Plane, and The Poseidon Adventure), Shep's amazing Flex-Picker, many other amazing constructions large and small... and, of course, robots.

We had Monster Chess there again, as well as a preview of a future project, a LEGO robot based version of RoboRally (even bigger than Monster Chess). The NXT-based Space Shuttle was there, robots like PackBot (kids played with it all day long), a huge number of sumo robots (around 70+... we had a multi-hour teach-in for people new to it), a bunch of entries for a "Build-On-The-Spot" (B.O.T.S.) challenge, and boat races again. I've got a bunch of pictures I need to get up, but so far I've only put together one video, a collection of clips of the LEGO boat race (including underwater):

(yes, I'm finally actually in a video... mostly getting wet).

Really, the amazing thing about this event isn't even the LEGO (although have you ever watched a guy dressed in a pure LEGO version of Halo's Master Chief walk through a 7' tall wall of 1x8 bricks? There's a LOT of LEGO there too)... it's the people. The interactions. The interplay that you get when you put several hundred of the best LEGO builders in one hotel, and leave them alone (while sometimes throwing food at them) for a long weekend. It's not just the number of things to passively look at that inspire you, but the conversations you can have in that sort of environment. As just one example, Shep noticed a small occasional problem with his amazing Flex-picker... which then ended up being a couple hours of troubleshooting with about half a dozen Mindstorms builders. Did it work better afterward? Slightly... but the bulk of the joy we all got was just getting a chance to work together on an interesting problem.

Hopefully, I'll post some more on Brickworld 2011 later (the sumo event was great).
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