Category Archives: Robots

Designing, building and testing robots.

Robogames 2015 is Coming Soon!

Robogames logo

Robogames is the Olympics of the robot world where international teams compete in dozens of events. It’s ingenious, combative, educational, and inspiring!

My nemesis has been the micromouse competition and this year, I’m busier than I’ve ever been so I’m trying not to lose too much sleep over the mouse, but it’s again coming down to the wire to determine skin care whether I’ll have a functional robot to enter.

I started over scratch with a simplified design that uses continuous rotation servos, but Modest Mouse is way behind schedule!

Modest Mouse
Modest Mouse

Either way, we’re looking forward to the games since there robots, robots, and more robots!

See you there :)


Save The Date for the 2015 Robot Block Party

Block Party 2015

The Silicon Valley Robot Block Party is an awesome event for anyone interested in Robots.

Mark your calendar for April 8, 2015 from 12 noon to 4pm. The event is at WilmerHale, 950 Page Mill Road, Palo Alto, CA 94304.

This is a great event for kids since there are always some activities and robots targeted at a younger audience. I’ve taken Kaiden for the past couple of years and we wouldn’t miss it. See my brief review for the 2014 Robot Block Party. I’ll be sure to take more pictures this year, but if you’re in the area, you have to check it out for yourself.

The following antibiotics companies and clubs are scheduled so far:

Robotics Companies: SRI International, ABB, Puzzlebox, Krtkl, EandM Engineering, Ebotic, Berkeley Emergent Space Tensegrities Lab (BEST), Tempo Automation, Dash Robotics, GigaMacro, Fighting Walrus

Robotics Clubs: Stanford Robotics Club, Aragon Robotics Team, Bay Area R2D2 Builders, The Cheesy Poofs FRC Team, Prospect High School Robotics Team, Westmont High School Robotics Team, Vex Team 5369 “The Duckies”

You can more recent details here: Silicon Valley Robot Block Party and we’ll see you there!


Join the Kid-friendly Robot Block Party

robot block party banner

In addition to the sunshine and fresh, organic food, one of the advantages of living in the Bay Area is obviously access to tech events. A favorite of ours for the past couple of years has been the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party which is part of National Robotics Week.

In order to attend, I have to manage my workload a little so that I can have a few hours off in the afternoon, but it’s well worth it. I took Kaiden for the second year in a row and we both had a blast. There are a variety of displays sleeping aids from small, speedy bots fabricated from a laser cut sheet ( to NASA Ames Research Center’s large, 4-wheeled rover which is used as a platform to test algorithms for space missions.

We were busy watching and interacting with the robots (and the people!) and I don’t have pictures, but have a look at links above.

If you’re in the area, be sure to look out for this event in 2015 and also be sure to look for other interesting events during National Robotics Week. There may be displays, gatherings, talks, and competitions to watch or join – all across the nation!


National Robotics Week

Robot Programming for Young Kids

Children learn from their parents (including things they weren’t meant to learn until later) and their exposure to various topics is largely a function of their parents interests. So for Kaiden, one of the things that meant was some exposure to electronics and robotics.

He would sit on my lap at my workbench and ask a million questions, or was it 4 questions a quarter million times each? Once he learned a little, he would make requests to see a small drawer full of capacitors or resistors (boring) or switches.

He was interested in the robotics and I promised that one day I would teach him to build and program his own robot since he had an unlimited supply of ideas about how many LEDs his robot would have, what colors they would be, and whether he preferred tracks or wheels or legs on particular robots.
Most institutions and most parents are really not sure at what age kids can or should be doing various tasks and robot programming for young kids is no exception. My goal was to get him started whenever he was ready and interested. The interest was apparent so to get him ready I planned to continue helping Kaiden with his reading (more on this later) and basic math and logic so that he would have a foundation from which to start.

robot block party

I took a couple of hours off one afternoon to take Kaiden to the Stanford Robot Block Party (now the Silicon Valley Robot Block Party) which is organized as part of the U.S. National Robotics Week. It’s an awesome, annual, free event that lets robotics geeks do their thing and gets everyone else excited about the possibilities. We had a great time seeing all the robots and demonstrations, from cheap homemade robots to Willow Garage’s PR-2 and the da Vinci Si surgical system!

Read more about the block party here: Silicon Valley Robot Block Party 2014

Somewhere in between all that robot madness, we discovered a little robot named Thymio II.

Thymio is an open hardware and open source software project. It’s a compact, sturdy, 2-wheeled robot packed with features. It has lots of sensors, including several proximity sensors (5 on the front, 2 at the back, 2 facing downward for edge detection), a 3-axis accelerometer, 5 capacitive touch buttons, a microphone, an IR receiver for remote control, and a temperature sensor! Lots of lights for visual output, 39 LEDs in total, plus a 3-bar battery level display and a speaker.

Thymio II
Thymio II

The most attractive aspect for me, a parent of a three-year-old, was the visual programming environment. It’s bright, colorful, and not overly complex so kids can focus on the programming task.

visual programming language
Aseba Studio’s Visual Programming Language

The most technical prerequisite for using this programming environment is the ability to use a mouse or trackpad and while he had not done much on the computer prior to this, he picked it up quickly. Next on the agenda was an explanation of events and actions (input/output) and an overview of the interface and how to create the program. All of this took about 10 minutes and it took another 15 minutes to get him to stop asking me if every move he made was correct. Once he saw the results of his first program, for which he made all the decisions, it was even more fun!

With so many other projects, toys, and interests, we haven’t played with Thymio as much as I would have liked, but Thymio makes an appearance occasionally.

The software is continually being upgraded and as of December 2013, the new firmware (version 7) allows Thymio robots to communicate with each other which is very cool.

Looking forward, I don’t think this platform works well for making the transition to programming in other environments. The VPL is nice in that it’s simple to use and can do some more advanced functions since it even has a state machine. You also get to see the code generated for any change to the visual interface; however, that code is a big leap from the pure graphical interface. I believe that the next step should be something like Scratch or 12 Blocks which combines the visual aspect with the code structure that then translates more easily into pure code. I’ll write more about 12 Blocks, Scratch, Tynker, and some other programming options in the coming months. The most important message I can deliver is this: never listen to anyone, including educators, if they tell you that kids should start at age X. Listen to your kid.

For now, he’s still enjoying Thymio, but this was every bit as fun for me to stand back and watch as it was for Kaiden to do!