The Litec blimp was the final project for an embedded control class I took at the end of my Sophomore year at RPI. The blimp hardware was provided, but the challenge was using an Intel 8051 micro controller to implement things like PID control, I2C, SPI, PWM, interrupts, analog to digital conversion, etc.
The ultimate goal of the blimp was to build a rudimentary flight controller to that could hold a specified altitude and heading. More than anything, working with the 8051 (which is quite old) made me appreciate how much is being abstracted away when working with something like an Arduino and higher level languages.
I designed most of this robot on my own for a now dissolved group of students at RPI interested in starting a Battlebot team. It never made it into the real world but still remains a viable design as far as I am concerned. More written about it here.
This robot at first wasn’t even really a robot, just some servos, a pan tilt module and an Arduino. However, just like this website, it has had many incarnations over the years and exists primary as an educational tool for me to learn more and tinker around with whenever I find the time. Over the years it has been controlled from Windows, Linux, LabVIEW, by hand, over the internet and sometimes purely autonomous.
It used to be attached to a netbook and some wheels, and I would to drive it around the dorm and talk to people using text to speech. In its current incarnation, it has functioned mostly as a stationary pan / tilt camera. When I get some time, I have plans to start using it to teach myself more about computer vision. I also don’t really have a good picture for it as it is always changing forms, so here is a video of it detecting faces.
One of the best summers of my life was spent in Concord NH at the St. Paul’s Advanced Studies Program taking an AI class with Terry Wardrop and other talented students from NH. We spent the summer learning things like game theory, programming in LISP, learning finite state automata, building simple robots, etc.
The culmination however occurred when the whole class pulled together and tried to design an autonomous boat around a FIRST robotics controller, some 8020 aluminum struts, and old sailboat hull and a trolling motor.
I was in charge of the steering system, which failed terrifically as I was not allowed to modify the trolling motor in any way so I tried to do it with rope (spoiler: it didn’t work).
Also as you can see from the picture (I did a lot of running that summer and was basically a twig) the class also elected me to be the “test pilot”. Nothing like being in an old sail boat hull filled with expensive electronics surrounded by water.
I had the great fortune of being able to participate and be the captain of FIRST team 1831 throughout my time at Gilford High School. A listing of all the robots built with FIRST can be found here.
I may owe all of my engineering and mechanical intuition to Legos. I used to love playing with these things. The best Lego set I ever had has was tothe Robotics Invention System. Thank god for my generous and understanding parents for not laughing me out of the room when 4th grade Lucas wanted this $200 kit (they made me work for it).
Just writing about it makes me want to jump out of this chair, run down to the basement and start tinkering around like old times. I cannot tell you the hours I spent building and programming this thing. More than any other robot on this page, the RCX played a pivotal role in who I am now. It is endlessly configurable by curious youngsters, and I hope LEGO keeps at it to inspire the next generation of roboticists.
Written by Lucas Doyle