Right Tool for the Job
Over the past few months, I have been endeavoring to clean up the construction of and add features to my object avoiding robot Geoff. In doing so, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the hardware I currently have. This frustration was only magnified after using the Lego NXT line of robot controllers in a machine learning class I took. I really appreciated the flexibility the Lego gave me to quickly prototype a new hardware configuration. While I love Lego, I’m not as in love with their controllers and I wasn’t about to abandon my arduino or beaglebone. Instead I chose the Makeblock hardware system which the creators characterize as “Lego for adults”. If anyone reading this remembers Meccano, it’s very similar.
I bought the Ultimate Kit from robotshop.ca in blue. All the beams are made from extruded aluminium. They are very light weight but after putting together the robot arm car, they are sturdy. The only set of instructions that come with the kit are for the robot arm car featured on the box and website. Makeblock advertises that, with the kit, there are ten robots of Makeblock’s own design can be built. After some searching, there are no formal instructions for the other 9 robots, rather CAD diagrams that can be exploded to show the construction of them in detail but not step by step.
Due to some errors, my order with robotshop.ca was upgraded to the Ulitmate kit with electronics. I initially ordered it without electronics since I have an array of sensors plus an arduino. Since I had the electronics, I went ahead and put together the robot arm car. The construction of the car was vary straight forward and only a few areas gave me trouble. This trouble amounted to some of the hardware used being quite small in some cases coupled with fitting into a hard to reach area. Adjusting the pulley for the arm so that the belt did not skip was also a somewhat involved process. In spite of these issues though, construction with the Makeblock hardware was a joy compared to using the rag tag collection of hardware I have been using up until now. All the bolts fit nicely where they were supposed to and the beams all lined up as illustrated in the instructions.
Once the robot car was assembled and the electronics installed then the real problems began. The robot arm car is not autonomous but rather it is meant to be controlled via bluetooth from a smartphone using an app available from Makeblock. I was using a Motorola X 2015 with this app and was never successful in getting it to work. The app always had trouble connecting to the bluetooth module on the robot. If it did connect, none of the pre-configured control options worked nor did trying to make a custom one. I found little documentation online in relation to the app or troubleshooting connection issues. Other customers reported similar issues on the official forums but there was little response from Makeblock. Thankfully, another customer recommended another android app called Robot Bluetooth Control from the Google Play store.
Using Robot Bluetooth Control, I was able to connect to my robot but the sketch loaded on the arduino clone it came with did not recognize the commands the app was sending. Since I could not find any copy of the sketch used by Makeblock to control the robot arm car, I was forced to write my own. After some trial and error, I was able to write a program that recognized the commands sent by the android app and perform various functions when they are received such as move the car or the arm. I have pushed the sketch I wrote to github for others to use as they wish.
Overall, I’m very pleased with the Makeblock Ulitmate Kit. The hardware seems to be just what I need to quickly prototype my projects moving forward. This is the kind of kit anyone serious about creating projects that interact with the world around them but lacking a full blown workshop needs to pick up. I live in a high-rise so I have neither the space nor access to a machine shop or even a garage so making my own parts is out of the question. Kits like these make building complicated mechanical projects possible for those who otherwise cannot build or access the parts they need. The Ulitmate kit is a bit pricey but they sell other kits that start well below $100. I would caution anyone hoping to get this for a child or anyone absolutely new to arduino programming as the Makeblock ecosystem of software for their products still needs some work. The documentation for each sensor is good enough that, with some time spent creating and testing the sketch, the robots they advertise will work. I would not expect them to work out of the box however which is disappointing especially for those that sprung for the Ultimate Kit.