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Early Bird Robotics

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STEAM Punks Video

Tuesday, May 9, 2017: The STEAM Punks will soon complete their first year. A lot has happened this year and we have expanded beyond where we expected to be at this point! Starting from tiny robots that could fit in your hand, we've moved to building robots that could reasonably be expected to move a person or other heavy load. We still have a few weeks to finish up some things but here is a STEAM Punks Video to show some of what we have done so far.

Goddard Moves!

Friday, April 14, 2017: Our first 'large' robot has been named 'Goddard' in honor of Robert H. Goddard, the inventor of the liquid rocket engine. He was also the robotic dog on 'Jimmy Newtron'. Goddard takes its initial stroll outside of our shop building. Here is a SHORT VIDEO of our Goddard in motion.

Gears and Grease

Tuesday, March 28, 2017: We continue to work on our large robot but were very fortunate to have a large number of old motorized wheelchairs donated to our class. For the past week we've been disassembling each of them and salvaging any parts we can use. Most significantly, we now have an assortment of 24VDC motors that are bi-directional and that we can manage using microcontrollers! Besides motors, we are salvaging cables, connectors, electronic controls, meters, and other parts that will help us complete our large robot. Here is the inside of a motor reduction gearbox, complete with a lot of grease. Robotics is not pretty.

A Big Robot is Coming to Life!

Thursday, 9 March, 2017: Since the FTC competition season is over for the STEAM Punks, we are taking time to build a large, robotic tool cart. We only have one motor for the drive mechanism so we decided to take the differential gear from an old lawnmower. In the picture, we've mounted the differential to a 2"x2" angle iron frame and we're currently using the lawnmower tires and rims but we may go with some narrower wheels. These wheels will not fit when going through a standard 30" door. Our next two steps are to attach the motor and drive chain, and design and build a steerable front-wheel system. When we're done, the 'robot' may be 5 feet tall!

The Team at Work

Thursday, 19 January, 2017: Only 22 calendar days until the competition...or 16 school days...some of the STEAM Punks team gather around Gizmo to work on mounting and alignment of the particle shooter. It looks like that step is working well so we will next focus on programming the motors and we also need to create a method of getting the particle balls from the floor-level up into the shooter breach. It's a lot of work but we're up to it!

'Gizmo' Moves!

Wednesday, 4 January, 2017: Our robot, Gizmo, begins to take shape. He is approximately 17 inches square and will grow to a height of roughly 17 inches. He will gain the ability to collect 'particles' which resemble Wiffle balls, then either shoot them up a ramp for points or shoot them through the air and into a hoop for even more points. Here is a short video of his first tour of the classroom. Gizmo Video

New Robot Build in Progress

Tuesday, 3 January, 2017: The new year starts with a new robot build for the STEAM Punks. We will compete in the S.C. state competition on February 10 and 11 in Gaffney, SC. The first change is to put tank treads for movement instead of wheels. This should improve our ability to turn and navigate the field. We are also beginning to devise new point scoring systems by designing an updated sweeper and a ball-shooter that can dramatically improve our scoring potential.

STEAM Punks Logo

Monday, December 12, 2016: The Latta Middle School Art Students designed many choices for a team logo and we carefully reviewed them all today. Every entry was excellent but we had to pick one, so congratulations to Elli Arambulo, an 8th grader from LMS, on his winning design! We will be posting his work online and it will be on our team T-shirt. We will award him a T-shirt in recognition of his contribution. We want to thank ALL of the students for their entries and look forward to getting a new logo in the 2017-18 school year!

Robot Sweeper

Thursday, December 8, 2016: The team is working to create a functioning sweeper for the robot to use when collecting balls from the field and for pushing the balls up the ramp of the playing field. Here is a SHORT VIDEO of our very first effort. Our first practice competition is coming in two days so we have a lot of work to accomplish.

STEAM Punks Go Online

Friday, December 2, 2016: The Early Bird Robotics Class has morphed into the "STEAM Punks" First Tech Challenge (FTC) team. They designed and built their first robot in preparation for a practice challenge in Lugoff, SC, coming on December 10th. The robot was piloted by various drivers. This was the robot's maiden voyage and it left the robotics lab, travelled down the hall and into the library for a photo-op before returning back to the robotics lab...all under its own power. Needless to say, we were pretty happy with its performance. Click Here for a long, boring video of the robot's trip.

More 3D Design and Printing

Friday, November 18, 2016: Our class has taken a new step in 3D design and printing. Our last project, designing a lego piece, provided all of the relevant measurements to the student, making the process of designing the part much easier. Now we're moving into more real-world scenarios. The class was given a module for a robot and asked to design a holder for that part and print it. The students were required to take measurements of the module using a digital caliper, record those measurements, then modify the measurements to allow the two parts to work together. One lesson learned is that a 16mm part will not fit into a 16mm opening. So, to get the parts to work together, consideration had to be given to clearance measurements. Therefore, a 16mm part may need to fit into a 16.5mm opening. There is a LOT to keep in mind when designing parts that work together. In this picture, one of our students shows off the module inserted into the mounting part that she designed from her own measurements. The parts fit together perfectly!

STEAM Punks Visit KC Robotics Team

Tuesday, November 15, 2016: The instructor of the robotics class has been struggling with problems in programming the FTC robot they received as a kit of parts. There were no instructions and help has only been available from Youtube videos and PDF documents found on the Internet. On Tuesday, the instructor visited the KC Robotics Team in Lugoff, SC., and asked for some help. They very eagerly started putting parts together and setting up our laptop to allow us to program our robot. Most critically, they discovered a problem with one of our phones and they devised a workaround that will enable us to begin our own robot work until a new phone is received. Their team spirit was inspirational and they seem to enjoy working with each other. I hope our team will be able to visit their team on 10 December for a practice competition between robot clubs from other schools. THANK YOU, KC Robotics Team!

3D Design and Printing

Friday, November 11, 2016: The class has moved into 3D computer aided design (CAD) drawing with precision measurements and tolerences. Our first project was to download the measurements for a Lego piece and draw one to scale on the Sketchup CAD program. The one in the picture was drawn and printed by the instructor. On Wednesday, the class will begin printing their Legos...then we will try to connect them together. If all goes well, we will have demonstrated our ability to measure and draw accurately with a CAD program. Then we can begin designing parts for our future robots.

Motors, Steppers, and Servos

Monday, October 24, 2016: Until recently, the class had only worked with DC motors. Today they began expanding to steppers and servos. Here is a short description of the differences between the three parts.

Motor: Motors are good for torque and speed but they lack the ability to be accuratly turned to a specific position unless they are provided with additional circuitry. That is fine for things like drills. Some tasks require more accuracy.

Stepper: The Stepper can rotate continuously like a motor though often more slowly. However, the rotation of a stepper can be accurately moved a specified number of 'steps'. Some steppers move less than a degree per step (like the ones we are using in class). Other steppers are closer to 2 or more degrees per step. The fewer the degrees per step, the more precisely the stepper can be moved.

Servo: The servo does not typically rotate a full 360 degrees. Most servos are limited to only 180 degrees of movement, making them good candidates for such things a moving levers or robot 'claws'. One interesting aspect of the servo is that you can instruct it to move to a particular angle and it will jump to that point and attempt to stay there until told to go to another angle. This allows it to auto-correct itself if, for example, someone manually opens the robot claw. With a stepper, even though it can be accurately moved a certain number of degrees (steps), it is not aware if it is pointing at zero degrees, 45 degrees, or any other specific angle. The servo DOES know what direction it is pointing in.

Another Robot!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016: Another robot ready to roll off the assembly line. Nearly all of the class now has their robots runing in (somewhat) straight lines. They are having to adjust the pulse-width of the signal going to the motors so that both wheels spin at the same rate. This will lead to the next step of the process, which is steering right and left.

Robot Coming to Life

Friday, September 16, 2016: Although it is not yet running on the ground, this robot is very close to becoming operational. Students, having created a virtual version of the motor controller using the L293D IC, are now moving their circuits from the computer screen to the breadboard. Here, the motors are being tested to verify independent ability to turn forward and reverse, and to vary the rotation speed of each motor. The real version of the circuit is proving to be far more interesting than the virtual one.

Making Progress

Monday, September 12, 2016: We are working to control DC motors so that we can begin creating robotic vehicles. To start, we used a TIP120 transistor to interface an Arduino Uno with a motor, then we wrote computer code to turn the motor on, off, and vary its speed. The next step was to allow the motor to also go forward and reverse. For that, we began working with an integrated circuit called an L293D. The class studied how the L293D is able to control up to 2 motors and how to make those motors go forward or reverse. They used a FREE online electronics simulator to create their circuits ( and program them. Using the simulator, they were able to build and test their circuits without damaging actual components. Once we have that process down, we'll move to real parts and begin to build our first robots. There is a LOT of learning going on, and a little bit of fun.

For anyone interested in playing (learning) with electronics and building circuits, is a fantastic free web resource that is definately worth looking into.

Program Bug Solved!

Wednesday, August 31, 2016: Today we wrote a program to allow our Arduino to make an LED oscillate between bright and dim using a process called Pulse-Width Modulation (PWM). It appeared to be malfunctioning as the LED looked like it was not fading from bright to dim as it should. HOWEVER, it was fading exactly like we programmed it to do. Here is what went wrong. The fade process was going so fast that it looked like a very rapid blink. We needed to SLOW DOWN the fade process by adding a 30 millisecond day at the end of the loop, like so:


That short delay allows the LED to fade at a rate that our eyes can actually detect. We'll see this corrected program in action on Thursday. We'll also demonstrate the trouble-shooting step that was used to diagnose the problem.

This lesson proves what we discussed in class earlier..."The program will do exactly what you TELL it to do, not what you WANT it to do!"

LEDs and Logic Signals

Arduino powering 2 red LED lampsPhoto by B. Carter

A student in the Early Bird Robotics Course lights two Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) using an Arduino microcontroller. The LEDs are connected to output pins that the Arduino sends logic signals to (Low = 0 volts, High = 5 volts) illuminating the LEDs. Changes in the delay time between the two logic states allows the LEDs to blink at different rates. If the delays are very small, like 10 milliseconds, the LEDs flash so fast that they appear to be on constantly...until you move them rapidly and then you can see the fast blinks. This is a lesson in 'persistance of vision'.

Contact Information

Jim O'Hern
Robotics Instructor
Latta Schools
205 King Street
Latta, SC 29565
Phone: 843-752-7101