Robot/Arduino Hackathon in Redwood City (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Sat, 12 Nov 2011

Robot/Arduino Hackathon in Redwood City

Yesterday Dave and I attended a "Robot Hackathon" in Redwood City, part of a "nerd new year" 11/11/11 celebration.

What a fun event! O'Reilly/Make generously sponsored hardware, so everybody got an Arduino Uno as well as a Grid Kit, a couple of sheets of cardboard pre-scored in a grid to encourage cutting and bending into various robot shapes, and a couple of motors. Tools were provided -- there were big bins of wire, soldering irons, glue guns, box cutters and other odds and ends.

People of all ages were there having fun -- lots of kids there with their parents, as well as adults of all ages and experience levels. The adults were mostly fiddling with the Arduinos; the younger kids mostly eschewed the electronics and concentrated on building cool monsters and vehicles with the cardboard kits. I saw some great models -- penguins, squid, tanks, cherrypickers, many-legged bugs. Wish I'd thought to take a camera along.

No instructions were provided, but I didn't see many people looking lost; there were enough people there with experience in Arduino, soldering and the other tools who were happy to help others. I was able to help some folks with their Arduino projects while I worked on copying a grid penguin model from a nearby table. There were lots of friendly volunteers (I think they were from Robotics for Fun) wandering around offering advice, in between building a cardboard city out of GridKits. There was even pizza, from host Pizza & Pipes.

I had to leave before finishing my penguin, but it does have me inspired to do more with Arduinos and motors. I had a blast, both fiddling with my own projects and helping other people get started with Arduinos, and I'm pretty sure everybody else in the room was having an equally good time. Thanks, sponsors O'Reilly/Make, Robotics for Fun, The Grid Kit, Mozilla, MS and Andreessen Horowitz!

Controlling motors from an Arduino

One point of confusion: everybody got their Arduino LEDs blinking quickly, but then how do you control a motor? I wasn't sure about that either, but one of the volunteers found a printout of sample code, and it turned out to be simplicity itself: just plug in to one of the digital outputs, and set it to HIGH when you want the motor to spin.

There was much discussion at my table over how to reverse a motor. I suggested you could plug the two motor leads into two digital pins, then set one HIGH and the other LOW; then to reverse the motor, just swap the HIGH and LOW pin. Nobody believed me, and there were a lot of fervent assertions that there was some magic difference between a pin being LOW and a real ground. I should have coded it up then to demonstrate ... I wish I had, rather than spending so much time hot-gluing penguin parts.

Now that I'm home and it's too late, here's an example of how to reverse a motor by plugging in to two digital outputs.

// Arduino basic motor control

#define DELAYTIME   1000      // milliseconds

int motorPins[2] = { 5, 6 };  // plug the motor leads into these pins
int direction = 0;            // toggle between 0 and 1

void setup()
    pinMode(motorPins[0], OUTPUT);
    digitalWrite(motorPins[0], LOW);
    pinMode(motorPins[1], OUTPUT);
    digitalWrite(motorPins[1], LOW);

// Alternate between two directions and motionless.
// Assume we start with both pins low, motor motionless.
void loop()
    digitalWrite(motorPins[direction], HIGH);
    digitalWrite(motorPins[direction], LOW);
    direction = !direction;

Incidentally, powering robot motors directly from an Arduino is generally a bad idea. It's okay for testing or for small servos, but if you're going to be driving a truck with the motors or otherwise pulling a lot of current, it's better to use a separate power supply for the motors rather than trying to power them from the Arduino. The easy way is to buy something like this Motor/Stepper/Servo Shield that plugs in to the top of your Arduino and has its own power supply.

Arduino Uno on the command line

As I've written before, I prefer to do my Arduino hacking from the command line ... but I didn't know the settings needed for an Uno, and avrdude is quite particular about settings and can't auto-configure anything. So I ended up using the standard Arduino IDE while I was at the event ... there was theoretically wifi at the site, but it wasn't working for me so I had to wait 'til I got home to search for solutions.

Now I've uploaded a new, more flexible version of my Arduino Makefile with presets for the Uno, Duemilanove and Diecimila models: Makefile-0022-v3.

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[ 15:01 Nov 12, 2011    More hardware | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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