With a little space between myself and the Bay Area Maker Faire, I want to follow up on some of the themes I explored in my previous blog (Industrial Makers? BeagleBone, Rasberry Pi and Arduino Move Towards Modules) on industrialization of Maker platforms. While not a showcase for the latest commercial embedded applications, Maker Faire is a natural home for the Arduinos and Raspberry Pi’s and a great place to spot these platforms being used for interesting things.
I spotted a number of BeagleBone Blacks finding their way into more serious robotics and machining applications. The Open ROV project has a completely open source underwater drone design, with the primary control software running on Linux on the BeagleBone. The project has truly embraced open source, with all hardware schematics, electrical and mechanical, and software available online.
The BeagleBone Black was also the brains behind a stunning five-axis desktop CNC milling machine from PocketNC. 3D printing may have captured most of the fabrication hype in recent years, but CNC milling is, at this point, a more precise, versatile and production-quality form of machining. The ‘democratization’ of this kind of tool to a price and usability level that will put it in the hands of a much wider audience has interesting implications. Could things like this unlock micro-manufacturing on demand, much closer to the end of the supply chain? Or will these machines remain the domain of enthusiasts and local maker spaces?
Two more projects crossed my radar that I’ll explore further. Robbie the Robot was the result of a 24-hour hackathon entry by a team from Finger Food Studios. Robbie explores anthropomorphism and human recycling behaviors, seeking to utilize empathy to educate, build awareness and encourage more recycling. What I found very interesting about Robbie was that he is a robot built by a team consisting primarily of software app developers. Robbie’s personality is an Android application running on a Qualcomm 410c Dragonboard. This is interfaced to a Raspberry Pi handling the I/O to his various sensors and actuators. A Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) interface connects to an iOS app providing additional control and interfacing. Robbie uses several AT&T APIs as well including SMS, text-to-speech, speech-to-text, M2X, Sponsored Data and Data Rewards. Robbie is a great example of how the evolution of platforms and expanding support for ecosystems such as Android, bring new types of developers and engineers into traditionally embedded fields like robotics. Accessible hardware and software makes this possible and could unlock talent and insight from other disciplines for IoT and embedded.
The final project I’d like to share is hard not to talk about without boyish enthusiasm. I grew up in awe of the Space Shuttle missions, the brave women and men exploring a new frontier, and that almost mythical agency making it all happen – NASA. This past weekend I got to hang out with a real NASA engineer, who showed me pictures of his project in space as we talked about some of the interesting work his division is doing with micro-satellites. The Nodes (Network and Operations Demonstration Spacecraft) project was launched from the ISS last week as a testbed for mesh networking protocols being developed with an eye towards developing swarms of micro-satellites for applications such as mapping the earth’s orbital radiation environment. These satellites primary control software is an Android app. Yes, you read that right – an Android app.
The internal electronics are actually the main board from a Nexus S smartphone, alongside a couple of Arduino boards. The smartphone board provides the main apps processor and hosts the main program, but the satellite also uses several mems sensors on board, such as the magnetometer and accelerometer. The Arduino devices provide the watchdog program, power management, and attitude control. The main board interfaces to the Arduinos and radio hardware via the UART on the USB.
I had a fantastic talk with the engineer around the theme of ‘good enough’ hardware. Obviously off-the-shelf consumer electronics and hobbiest platforms like Arduino don’t hit the same levels of reliability as high-spec industrial parts. But they get better and better all the time, and the software environments around them improve at a lightning pace. They may not fit the bill for mission-critical applications, but in a meshing swarm of micro satellites, individual node reliability can be rapidly compensated for if the network as a whole remains functional. Utilizing common devices and software platform obviously reduces cost and development time, definitely for prototyping and depending on the end use case, even for production. Good enough for NASA!
I think these projects all demonstrate the interesting places where a generation of extremely accessible hardware and software platforms is taking us. The lines are blurring between embedded and other disciplines as the IoT really starts to ramp, and this dovetails interestingly with a world where the tools of the trade have never been cheaper or easier to get started with.