Tuesday, January 10, 2006

On Lego Mindstorms

Lego has recently announced a new version of their Mindstorms set, Mindstorms NXT. This new announcement is important, because the NXT allows building substantially more complex robots than the RIS 2.0. In particular:

  • The DC motors have been replaced by servo motors. Controlling robots with servo’s simply is a lot easier, which is why hobby servo’s are part of nearly every DIY toy robot. Now, Lego has that part too. With the RIS, it was possible to build your own servo in Lego, but it was imprecise, fragile and used up sensor docks. The introduction of servo motors completely changes the Mindstorms usability.
  • New sensors have been added. For me, the ultrasonic sensor is probably the most important one, although the microphone allows for pretty cool toy effects as well. The fact that the NXT can produce sound is also nice. The touch sensor can be extended with a rod, which makes building complex touch sensors a lot easier. All in all, this is a great in itself. I also hope third parties further extend the sensors available.
  • Wireless Bluetooth. Not only does this allow a PC, PDA or mobile phone to take control of the unit without wires and more stable than using the old IR tower. You can also combine multiple NXT controllers to work together. The limit of Bluetooth is 8 nodes, and since we’ll always want a PC or PDA connectivity, one can combine up to 7 NXT’s in a single robot. That’s 21 servo motors and 28 sensors...

Each of these upgrades is exciting, but together they rock. I believe that I can build versions of most of the research robots I built before, using only out-of-the box lego bricks. Some designs can be built using just one NXT. On the other hand, one of my previous designs would in fact require all 7 NXT bricks just for basic locomotion, but the fact it can be built with Lego Mindstorms NXT is amazing. I’m into robot software, and now I can construct research bodies for my robots using Lego. How great is that!

But that's not all. As a software professional, I did not really work with Lego's graphical development environment, but rather used NQC for development. But I'm excited about Lego's choice to drop their custom environment and work with LabView. LabView is a professional environment that is used to create real software for industrial control systems. It provides project-based development, and is a powerful visual language. From the looks of it, it seems they are using LabView 8's Express Technology. That makes me very wonder how accessible the lower level API's would be, and how easy it would be to add bricks with complex logic under the "Advanced" brick tab. I intend to use the LabView environment as much as possible.

I will make some effort to try to build robots with just one NXT brick whenever possible. I’m really looking forward to posting robots I have built on this website. I intend to be instructive enough so that you can reconstruct my creations using step-by-step instruction. So check back as soon as you get your hands on a Mindstorms NXT box…


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