This month’s HackSpace Magazines includes my review of an easy-to-use but surprisingly feature-rich robot from Dexter Industries: the BBC micro:bit-powered GiggleBot.
At first glance, the GiggleBot seems like a straightforward two-motor wheeled robot chassis. A closer look, though, reveals where it differs from the norm: RGB LEDs, a built-in line-following sensor, Grove headers for additional hardware, and even a pair of servo headers to add additional motion into the mix.
All this hardware is controlled from a standard BBC micro:bit microcontroller board, and doesn’t interfere with any of its existing components – meaning you’re still free to use the LED matrix display, compass, accelerometer, and Bluetooth radio, the latter even allowing you to use one BBC micro:bit as a handheld remote for another powering the robot.
For the full review you can either pop to your nearest supermarket or newsagent for a print copy of the magazine or, as with all Raspberry Pi Press publications, you can download a Creative Commons licensed digital version free of charge from the official website.
First, the Coldcard. Designed by the company behind the Opendime (reviewed in Issue 175, and dead due to an apparent design flaw a week later), the Coldcard is roughly the size of a small stack of credit cards but provides a full hardware wallet for the Bitcoin and Litecoin cryptocurrencies. At least, that’s the theory: sadly, in practice, the device proved difficult to use owing to software glitches, hardware flaws, and a lack of third-party software support which reduces you to using only one wallet package to interface with the Coldcard.
The GiggleBot, by contrast, is a significantly more polished product. While the documentation still needs work, the robot itself – featured two individually-addressable motors, a line- or light-following sensor board, RGB LEDs, and expansion potential from Grove-compatible connectors and a pair of servo headers – is exceptionally impressive, and a great introduction to basic robotics for younger programmers. Those looking to make the leap from the block-based MakeCode environment to Python, though, will discover that the two libraries are far from equivalent in terms of feature availability – something that, again, will hopefully be addressed in the future.
Finally, the Clockwork GameShell. Produced following a successful crowdfunding campaign, the device is based around a Raspberry Pi-like single-board computer dubbed the Clockwork Pi and runs a customised Linux distribution with neat menu system. Its internals, interestingly, are modular, with each contained inside a snap-together transparent plastic housing – a decision which makes for a slightly bulky Game Boy-like outer shell and, sadly, is the direct cause of some overheating problems for the system-on-chip (SoC) during more intensive games like Quake. These issues, though, are largely outweighed by sheer novelty value: a few minutes of FreeDoom in the palm of your hand is sure to raise a smile.
The full reviews can be read in Custom PC Issue 184, available from your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
My work for Hobby Tech this month involved rather more soldering than is usual, in order to assemble the parts required for reviews of the Boldport Club’s Ligemdio and Touchy kits and the Dark Control Raspberry Pi motor control boards – though, at least, the final review of the freshly-launched Debian+Pixel Linux distribution was free of fumes.
First, the Boldport Club. I’ve reviewed one of Saar Drimer’s impressively artistic circuit kits before, back in November 2015, but where you used to have to camp out on the Boldport website to pick up the latest small-production-run kit there’s a new option: monthly subscription. Members of the Boldport Club get a series of parcels, typically but not always including a kit featuring a Saar-designed printed circuit board but almost always being aimed more at the experienced engineer than the absolute beginner.
For a flavour of what Boldport Club members can expect, Saar sent over two kits: the Touchy, a touch-sensitive microcontroller dedicated to the memory of maker Oliver Coles, and the Ligemdio, a handy-dandy USB-powered LED tester. The latter proved far simpler to build than the former: anyone used to beginner through-hole kits would undeniably find the surface mount components on the Touchy a challenge, but therein lies its attraction.
The soldering on the Dark Control boards, by contrast, was considerably less tricky. Created by the Dark Water Foundation and funded via Kickstarter, the Dark Control boards – one for DC motors and the other for ESC motors – are impressive beasts. Designed to mimic the footprint of the diminutive Raspberry Pi Zero, the boards include the ability to run a minimum of six independent motors, include room for a nine-degree sensor add-on, and can be linked to remote control hardware for network-free control of everything from submarines to aerial drones.
Finally, Debian+Pixel is Raspbian for the masses. Like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel is built on top of Debian Linux; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel uses the Pixel desktop environment; like Raspbian, Debian+Pixel includes a selection of educational software chosen by the Raspberry Pi community. Unlike Raspbian, though, Debian+Pixel runs on almost any x86 PC – meaning you don’t need a Raspberry Pi.
The software is, as you’d expect from a distribution based on one of the oldest Linux variants around, stable. The Pixel interface looks the same whether you’re running on a Pi or a traditional PC, and only the speed at which programs open and run gives it away. Sadly, there are one or two omissions largely as a result of licensing agreements: the handy Wolfram Alpha application is nowhere to be found, as is the extremely buggy Minecraft Pi Edition that saw one release back in 2013 before being abandoned by the now Microsoft-owned Mojang.
For the full run-down of all these shiny things, plus a whole bunch of other stuff written by people who aren’t me, you can pick up the latest Custom PC magazine in your nearest supermarket, newsagent, or electronically via Zinio and similar digital distribution platforms.
To look at the Mirobot first, it’s no secret that I was eager to put it through its paces. Turtle-style robots, which roll around the floor drawing pictures, were immensely popular in the 80s, and the Mirobot looks to bring the technology bang up to date. Entirely open source, from the circuits to the software, the Mirobot is based around two microcontrollers: an Arduino, which handles the actual robotics, and an ESP8266, which provides Wi-Fi connectivity and handles the user interface and ever-so-smart over-the-air (OTA) flashing capabilities.
The Mirobot screams smart from the moment you open the package: its body is made from laser-cut MDF, and the panels form the packaging itself. Everything is put together without tools, and getting up and running requires no software installation – just a device with a modern browser. Multiple programming languages are available, and an API for those who want to roll their own software. In short, I’m a Mirobot fan – and I’d heartily recommend picking one up if you’ve an interest in open-source robotics or programming for education.
The Kano Complete Computer Kit, on the other hand, comes at education from a very different perspective. Billed somewhat disingenuously as a computer you ‘build,’ the kit is at its heart a speaker and case for a bundle Raspberry Pi alongside a customised operating system which is the project’s true selling point.
The Kano kits have been around for a while now, but the Complete Computer Kit as reviewed is new: the computer side has been refreshed to include the latest Raspberry Pi 3, while the bundle also includes a high-quality but non-touch display which accepts the Kano-cased Pi in its rear. It’s a lovely kit, and the software – which you can download for free and run on your own Raspberry Pi – is phenomenal, but its cost definitely lets it down: at £299 RRP it’s massively overpriced.
Finally, the Arduboy. Crowdfunded and hit by numerous delays on its way to market, the Arduboy is an extremely smart little handheld console based around an Arduino-compatible ATmega microprocessor. Games are written in the Arduino IDE then flashed onto the credit card sized device via USB, and play out on a teeny-tiny little single-colour OLED panel which is sadly prone to bad banding.
The Arduboy is a lovely device, but it’s not the first design I’ve seen – and nor is it my favourite. The Gamebuino, reviewed back in Issue 134, still sits at the top for a number of reasons: it’s cheaper, it has better battery life, and it has a clever system for loading games from a bundled micro-SD card. The Arduboy, by contrast, is slimmer, has a clearer display, but can only carry a single game at a time. When you want to switch games, you’ll need a computer with the Arduino IDE – and that’s a major drawback in a portable gaming device.
All this can be yours, alongside the usual raft of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, at your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or from the comfort of wherever you are now via Zinio and similar digital distribution services.
Inside this month’s MagPi Magazine – the first issue to feature a cover-mounted DVD, boasting a bootable copy of the new Debian+Pixel Linux distribution for readers to try – you’ll find my review of a rather special little gadget: the Mirobot v2 programmable robot.
I’ve played with educational robots before, but the Mirobot caught my eye the minute I saw inventor Ben Pirt demonstrating it at the Maker Faire UK earlier this year. With a chassis made entirely from laser-cut MDF, the Mirobot is an impressive package: Ben has designed it so that every component nestles in holes cut out from the MDF sheets themselves, making for an extremely compact box which pops nicely through your letterbox and leaving almost zero waste once assembled.
The Mirobot is designed primarily for use as a turtle, and includes a mount for a pen so it can draw on suitable surfaces. Where it differs from most rival designs is that it can be programmed entirely through a browser: an on-board web server, running on the popular ESP8266 microcontroller, can work as a standalone hotspot with simple Scratch-inspired drag-and-drop programming interface or connect to your home Wi-Fi and allow access to additional languages, a point-and-click interface, and even a set of buttons for direct remote control.
With the exception of the Scratch language, which relies on Adobe Flash Player, everything works an absolute treat on the Raspberry Pi, but the Mirobot isn’t limited to this: it can be programmed from any modern web-connected device, from a laptop to a smartphone, or for more advanced users interfaced with via a well-documented application programming interface (API) from the language of your choice. Assembly is quick and easy, requiring absolutely no tools, and while aligning the pen and motors is a little trickier that’s a one-off job.
To read the full review, either pick up a paper copy of The MagPi Issue 53 and enjoy your bonus cover DVD or download the entire issue for free under the Creative Commons licence from the official website.
I’ve been writing for The MagPi, the official magazine of the Raspberry Pi Foundation, since its major relaunch under the editorial leadership of Russell Barnes. That’s long enough to have built up a reasonable amount of content – and it’s that content you’ll find the The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book, published today under a Creative Commons licence.
Inside the 200 page book, which is available in print and as a DRM-free PDF download, you’ll find several pieces of my work. The first is entitled ‘Crowdfundings Greatest Hits,” an eight-page investigation of some of the biggest Pi-related crowd-funded projects around – and some of its biggest failures, too. This was a great piece to work on, involving plenty of research and interviews, and was the first to break the news that Azorean was relying on additional external investment to fulfil rewards in its Ziphius campaign – rewards which have still not been fulfilled, more than a year after its original launch date.
You’ll also find reprints of several of my reviews: there’s the Pimoroni Display-o-Tron 3000 add-on, the Weaved IoT remote access system, the 4Tronix Agobo low-cost robot chassis, Velleman’s 3D Printing Pen, and the excellent Swanky Paint from local coding outfit WetGenes. Naturally, each is accompanied by photography which is also published under a Creative Commons licence – and is, as always, available for reuse from my Flickr page.
This marks the first book to which I have contributed which is published under a Creative Commons licence, but it certainly won’t be the last. Allowing for free non-commercial reuse and encouraging sharing and copying, it’s an approach at the complete opposite end of the spectrum to that taken by most publishers – and one of which I heartily approve.
You can download The Official Raspberry Pi Projects Book for free from the official website, while print copies are available from the swag store or the usual high-street outlets.
In this month’s Hobby Tech column, I report from the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, build a 4tronix Agobo robot, and take a look at the Acorn x86 Card – a device that let Acorn users try out the joys of Microsoft’s Windows 95.
First, the robot. Designed as a lower-cost and simpler alternative to the Pi2Go-Lite robot I reviewed back in Issue 135, the Agobo is one of the few kits out there designed specifically for the Raspberry Pi Model A+. While that means that you miss out on a few niceties, few of these – like the wired Ethernet port – are all that important to a portable robot build. The advantages outweigh the negatives, too: the Model A+ draws less power, is smaller, lighter, and costs less; the only real shame is that there is no quad-core Raspberry Pi Model A yet available, leaving users stuck with the outdated single-core BCM2835 system-on-chip processor.
As with the Pi2Go-Lite, I enjoyed building the Agobo – a process which was a lot simpler, involving zero soldering and only a little bit of swearing as I tried to get the bearings in the front caster to cooperate – and programming it was a cinch thanks to 4tronix’s great samples. While it’s undeniably more limited than the Pi2Go-Lite or its full-fat Pi2Go brother, the Agobo could well be a good choice for beginners or the budget-conscious – but for a full conclusion, you’ll have to read the review.
I spent two days this month covering the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, with travel expenses very kindly covered by my client oomlout – for whom I’ve been doing regular blog posts – and it was, as these events always are, an absolute pleasure. Housed at Eureka, the national children’s museum, the event – a community-driven spin-off from Make’s Maker Faires – was well-attended, including by numerous guests who had never been to maker-themed events before. There were soldering workshops, hackspaces, a chap who builds automata out of toys, all kinds of wondrous things – and you can read about them in detail this month.
Finally, the Acorn x86 Card. I wasn’t planning to write about it, but I happened to find it while clearing out the office and thought it would be of interest to readers. A relic of the days before x86 compatibility was the norm in personal computers, the add-in card allowed Acorn’s ARM-based Risc PC to run Windows – even Windows 95, at the time the cutting-edge in operating systems. My particular example is a second-generation card featuring a Texas Instruments 486 processor, and I still haven’t got around to fitting it into my Risc PC despite having received it a couple of years ago…
All this, plus a selection of interesting things written by people who aren’t me, is available in Custom PC Issue 144 from your nearest newsagent, supermarket, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
As always, this month’s Linux User & Developer magazine includes my four-page news spread along with a review: the PiBorg UltraBorg robot-centric controller board.
I originally reviewed the UltraBorg in The MagPi Issue 33, where I focused on its use as a Raspberry Pi-driven accessory. In the more general-audience Linux User & Developer, however, I was free to take a broader view – which is good, because the UltraBorg is happy working with any microcontroller or microcomputer that can talk I²C to it.
Designed for robotics use, the UltraBorg combines two requirements: sensing and control. There are eight channels, split into two: four are used to control up to four servos or stepper motors via pulse-width modulation (PWM), something the Raspberry Pi can’t do without add-on hardware; the other four are used to pull in values from popular models of ultrasonic distance sensor. The result: using a single board, you can interface with everything you’d need for quite a complex robotics project.
There’s a lot to light about the UltraBorg: it’s small, it’s reasonably affordable, and it combines the two requirements for basic robotics projects. It’s also surprisingly high-resolution, and includes non-volatile memory which is used to store movement limits and zero positions – and if you’ve ever watched your robot shake itself to death on a reset because these were forgotten, you’ll be glad of it. It can also be extended by daisy-chaining multiple units together, if you need more than four channels of motor control or distance sensing.
If you want to read my full conclusion, though, you’ll need to pick up the latest issue, and if you do you’ll discover that the news pages have had an overhaul. The often-ignored calendar section is gone, in favour of a chart run-down powered by data from Distrowatch. There’s also a regular top-five section, and a few other improvements which I think readers should enjoy.
All this, plus things written by people who aren’t me, can be yours at your local supermarket, newsagent, or digitally via Zinio and similar services.
The GrovePi+ Starter Kit was kindly provided by the US-based Dexter Industries, which developed the bundle with Chinese electronics experts Seeed Studios. As the name suggests, the GrovePi+ is a Raspberry Pi add-on designed to introduce compatibility with Seeed’s Grove platform of add-on modules. The main part of the system is an add-on board – not a Hardware Attached on Top (HAT)-standard board, but a ‘dumb’ piggyback board – which adds the quick-connect headers required for Grove compatibility.
Installation is easy – a script is provided by Dexter – and the bundle includes a number of Grove modules for experimentation, from LEDs and a rotary angle sensor to an ultrasonic distance sensor and a liquid-crystal display with RGB backlight. Naturally, any other Grove-compatible modules can be added if you need to expand from the stock bundle.
Where the GrovePi+ is a kit aimed at beginners who have no real project in mind, the UltraBorg is very specific in its target market: people looking to build robots. Supplied by UK-based PiBorg, the UltraBorg is an I²C device which offers high-precision 16-bit control of servos or stepper motors, alongside four interfaces for HC-SR04 ultrasonic distance sensors – the same popular sensor type found in the GrovePi+ kit.
For a basic robot project, the UltraBorg can be connected to a Raspberry Pi, Arduino, or any other device which speaks I²C; for more complex projects UltraBorgs can be daisy-chained for a near-unlimited number of inputs and outputs, although I was sadly unable to test this particular function during my review.
If you’re wondering what my opinions were on both these add-ons, you can download The MagPi Issue 33 for free from the The MagPi: Issue 33.
There’s no tutorial in this month’s Hobby Tech, for one simple reason: the only interesting thing I built this month is actually from a kit, and more suited to a review-format write-up. As a result, you’ll find in the pages of Custom PC Issue 135 a two-page review of the Pi2Go-Lite robot kit, a spread on my visit to the Wuthering Bytes festival in Hebden Bridge, and a review of the surprisingly powerful CuBox-i4Pro.
Starting with the robot, Gareth Davies of UK-based educational electronics concern 4tronix was kind enough to send me an early sample of a Raspberry Pi-powered robotics kit he has put together. Dubbed the Pi2Go-Lite, it’s a cost-reduced solder-it-yourself version of a more feature-filled and pre-assembled Pi2Go design. Despite this, it’s hardly lacking in features: as well as a pair of motors driving wheels with rubber tyres and a metal 360-degree bearing caster at the front, the robot includes numerous sensors including infra-red for line-following and impact warnings and ultrasonic for distance measuring.
The kit was a delight to build, being mostly through-hole components with a small introduction to surface-mount soldering in order to – rather cleverly, in my opinion – mount standard through-hole infra-red sensors on the front edge of the main circuit board. The robot itself is driven from the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO header – Pi not supplied – which is in turn driven by a set of AA batteries. I had great fun with the build, and I’d recommend checking out the review if you fancy a bit of Python-powered robotics yourself.
Wuthering Bytes, as those who follow me on Twitter – or, indeed, in real life – will know, is a maker-themed technology event in Hebden Bridge each year. As with last year’s event, I was invited by co-founder Andrew Back to compère the Friday’s formal talk sessions and then used that to guilt the team into letting me attend the Saturday talks and Sunday workshops for free. Personal highlights of the event included a talk by Sophie Wilson, co-inventor of the ARM processor architecture, on the future of semiconductors and some excellent hands-on workshops on the Sunday – and I’m already looking forward to Wuthering Bytes 2015.
Finally, the CuBox-i4Pro. Kindly supplied by the lovely Jason King at low-power computing specialist New IT, SolidRun’s latest revision of the ultra-compact CuBox concept features an amazingly powerful quad-core Freescale i.MX6 processor. It’s the quad-core variant, in fact, of the chip you’ll find in the HummingBoard I reviewed last month, with SolidRun having worked to ensure software written for one can be used on the other.
For all this, plus various things written by people who aren’t me, you’ll want to either venture to your local newsagent or supermarket or stay in and download a digital copy of Custom PC Issue 135 via Zinio or similar services.