25 January 2010

Shifting Gears - iRobot Create

I'm shifting gears to robotics. Awhile ago I got an iRobot Create. Its basically a Roomba vacuum cleaner with the guts removed to make a cargo area. In this area is a 25-pin connector that provides power, TTL serial port, digital and analog I/O.

I also got a Command Module (CM) which fits onto the connector. The CM is an Atmega 168 processor that adds some additional I/O. It can be programmed to control the Create. I did so and basically reproduced the wandering behavior of the Create. It move around, bumps into things and turns away from what it hit. I added some additional behaviors such as if it got trapped, i.e. caught in the same place for a period of 10 secs, it would move to extract itself.

I want to do more with robots, such as entering in a RoboMagellan contest. That requires an outdoor capable robot that does a lot more than bump into things. A key component to me is vision. Maybe I could do that with the CM and another processor (like the CMUCam) but I really didn't want to learn YAPE (yet another programming environment).

Around the time I got thinking seriously on this I looked at ITX boards. Then the Fit PC computers became available, specifically the Fit PC Slim. The PC form and wireless sold me on trying to us it. The one drawback might be the processor speed when trying to do vision processing. That is acceptable because the Create with the Slim is a testbed for RoboMagellan where an entirely new, slightly larger platform will be used. By going with the PC as the base there are a large number of possibilities, including laptops and netbooks. If the processor is slow for vision the Create simply won't move as quickly or smoothly.

I have the Slim hooked up to the Create, drawing power, and running most of the behaviors previoiusly implemented with the CM. Once I got the basic threading, serial communications, and Create interface working the behaviors started working within minutes since they ported easily from the CM versions. All the code is C++. Threading and serial port routines are all from previous projects so its all come together with a few days work.