Building a robot at the NASA Space Apps Challenge

Claudia our Space Apps Lego robot

The NASA Space Apps Challenge took place around the world on 20-21 April 2013. Suitably inspired by this global hackathon, I entered the challenge with a team of work mates. We decided to take on the Lego Rover challenge and set about creating a Lego robot with a difference – gesture control. We assembled a Lego Mindstorms NXT robot kit and hooked it up to a laptop PC with a Microsoft Kinect sensor. In a handful of hours we created “Claudia”, the gesture-controlled robot that can use her claw to collect garbage (in this case soft drink cans) – somewhat inspired by and resemblant of WALL-E.

It was great fun and we were delighted (and relieved) that our live on-stage demo worked. Thanks to Steve for his successful arm-waving!

Geek art homage: BloodhoundSSC & Raspberry Pi

At an IET talk on Raspberry Pi this week, I met someone who works on BloodhoundSSC – the awe-inspiring, faster-than-a-bullet, 1,000mph car project. Both Raspberry Pi and BloodhoundSSC are fantastic UK STEM education initiatives doing a great job of engaging geeks of all ages.  Suitably inspired, I couldn’t resist paying homage with my Pi-powered light painting gizmo. Here’s the resulting living room geek art that celebrates these two UK technology icons. Hope you like!?

Long exposure light painting showing BloodhoundSSC car on left and Raspberry Pi logo on right

Geek art homage to BloodhoundSSC and Raspberry Pi

Robotic light painting with Raspberry Pi

First handheld attempt at light painting with Raspberry Pi

Inspired by the amazing images and brilliant write-up by Phillip Burgess at Adafruit, I decided to give my Raspberry Pi something interesting and colourful to do – light painting. A happy day of geeking saw my brother and I pull together a wireless remote-controlled, battery-powered, Raspberry Pi light painting robot. It’s not perfect, but we think the initial results are pretty good for a day’s work and I thought I’d share some notes and photos in case anyone else is interested.
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Boring football – time for a change?

To say I’m not a big football fan is an understatement, so I’m not fussed about the current World Cup proceedings. That might be due in part to low-scoring matches, and the majority of the interest seemingly coming from off-the-pitch antics rather than on-the-pitch artistry.

Perhaps the game would benefit from a bit of a refresh? Some ideas:

  • vary the scoring
    • award extra points for two goals scored by the same side within 5 minutes?
    • award points for non-goals (e.g. fractional points for shots on target and near-goals – not near-misses, since those by definition are goals!)
  • use more than one ball – perhaps introduce an extra ball every 5 minutes until one side scores? Possibly change the ball design to make its motion less predictable.
  • vary team sizes – perhaps remove one player from each side every 5 minutes until one side scores (perhaps a player voted for in real-time by spectators) or remove one player from the scoring side for every goal scored
  • vary the goal post arrangement
    • vary the goal size/position during the match
    • increase the number of goal posts (perhaps one set on all four sides of the pitch)

No doubt the purists would be up-in-arms at the thought of tinkering with their “beautiful game” and, admittedly, some of the ideas would bring challenges for the players, referees, ground staff and/or spectators. I’m sure with recent advances in technology (e.g. in the television space Hawk-Eye, Interactive TV, IP TV, 3D TV and Virtual Cameras) many of the problems are surmountable. Times change; perhaps football should too?

Update 4/7/2010: Wimbledon-inspired ideas – split the match into several ‘sets’. Winner of a set must be 2 goals clear. Matches could be over in minutes or drag on for hours!

How to virtualise and backup your wallet

Screenshot of iPhone showing image of bank card

Store card images in a photo album on your phone as a backup and for reference when the real card's not handy

You’ve got lots of important cards in your wallet – credit cards, payment cards etc.  You want to make sure they’re handy when you need them, and you don’t want to lose them.  No doubt you’ve also got lots more cards you seldom need (e.g. membership cards, discount cards) – so you either cram them into your wallet on the off-chance you’ll need them, or you don’t bother carrying them and sometime wish you had.  Either way – not ideal.  Increasingly, if you’re anything like me, cards are used as often for online payments as physical payments – so you can often get away with knowing the information printed on the card, rather than needing the card itself.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could have all your card information handy without having all your cards in your wallet (or, in fact, carrying any at all)?  And wouldn’t it be great if you had a backup of your wallet contents, so if you do ever lose it you know which cards to cancel?  How?

Make a photo album containing pictures of each of your cards, and carry it on your smartphone.

It’s easiest to use a scanner to capture the images of each card, but you could use a camera instead.  I scanned both sides of each card at 300dpi, which resulted in card images approx 1,000 pixels wide by 650 pixels high.   I used GIMP (the open source image manipulator) to combine the front and back images for each card into a single image file 1,050 pixels wide by 1,400 pixels high. Then I saved these in a photo folder that automatically syncs with my iPhone.  Job done.  30-or-so cards scanned front and back in well under an hour (I scanned several at a time).  And I think this is secure enough for me, because the PIN protection on my phone kicks in automatically after a handful of minutes.  If only my real wallet were PIN-protected and could be remotely wiped like my iPhone!

I still need to carry around my essential day-to-day cards in my wallet, but I can cut the clutter by leaving many at home.  Next time I need to prove my AA breakdown membership, prove my National Trust membership or order something online when my wallet’s not handy, I can just reach for my phone, pop in my PIN, eyeball the right card in the photo album and click it to read the details.  I’m not planning on losing my wallet, but if (when?) I ever do, sorting that out should be a lot easier too.

The Epoxy Ballad

After an inspiring rendition of The Ballad of Mini Cooper (sung by Peter McAlister), and much talk about the utility of epoxy resin for all manner of boat repairs, I penned The Epoxy Ballad:

From time to time all boats end up needing the odd repair,
for out at sea they do attract a deal of wear & tear.
When bits break, it always seems you’ve not got very long,
to patch them up and get them back to being good & strong.

So, you empty out your toolbox and somehow it is true,
that the best way to do the job will always involve glue.
Yet again you find yourself inexorably headin’,
for those wee magic tubes containing epoxy resin.

In a flash you’re overcome with such wave of pride,
at the thought you’ll make a bond that nought will override.
Just a few more minutes and the ills will be put right,
once you’ve finished dosing out and mixing Araldite.

But careful now, for too much glueing isn’t very clever –
first this bit here, then that bit there – you’ll go on forever.
Your addiction to adhesion will be plain for all to see –
you’ll end up with a boat that’s made entirely of epoxy.