Embedded Linux Development Platform
By Bryan Bergeron
I had the pleasure of speaking with a fellow robotics enthusiast, Eric Gregori, about his latest contribution to the field of affordable robotics. Eric started building robots at eight, and continues his passion/obsession today as the Embedded Firmware Product Specialist at Freescale Semiconductors. Because Freescale is into selling silicon and Eric is into robotics, it seems as though he’s one of the lucky few people that get paid for what they would otherwise do for free.
Eric’s latest project is extending his RobotSee software platform (http://www.EMGRobotics.com) to work with the new robot from Freescale: the Freescale Tower Mechatronic Robot. RobotSee is a free, open source robotics toolkit that works with Windows, the Chumby, Android tablets, and phones, and Linux. As you might expect, RobotSee provides a vision toolkit that includes features such as face recognition. Moreover, the toolkit — which uses an easy-to-use language with similarities to both C and Basic — supports voice recognition, speech synthesis, GPS navigation, and even an interface to those affordable brain-machine interfaces that are on the market.
The Freescale Tower Mechatronic Robot (which I’ll refer to as simply ‘Mech’) is Freescale’s first entry in the market targeting robotics enthusiasts. At $199, Freescale is positioning the robot as the next step up from robots based on the Stamp or Arduino. The basic board — which goes for $99 — uses a MC52259 32-bit microcontroller with 64K RAM and 512K Flash. It has space for two plug-in daughter boards, including a $25 magnetometer or compass and a $99 three-axis accelerometer. There’s also a pair of USB connectors, analog and digital I/O, I2C, SPI, and even a legacy RS-232 port. Development software includes free versions of CodeWarrior and RobotSee. In terms of difficulty, RobotSee is just a bit more challenging than, say, programming the BASIC Stamp. CodeWarrior, on the other hand, requires modest familiarity with C/C++ programming, and doesn’t come with built-in libraries for vision, speech, voice, and the rest.
Where Mech becomes interesting is when you drop in the 3” x 3” 1 GHz/1 GB Linux board on top of the basic board. The $149 board has enough power to support, say, your own robot swarm. You can add a webcam for vision recognition, a WiFi or XBee transceiver for wireless communications, or your own custom sensors. As you can see, you’ll want to perform a brain transplant as soon as you wrap your head around the Linux board.
Perhaps a crawler or R/C truck body would be more appropriate for the horsepower the Linux board brings to the table. Several years ago, I was forced to upgrade my hardware from lowly microcontrollers to a real time Linux board, at a cost of over $1,000 for the bare board. At $149, the Linux board is a bargain if you want to get into real time path finding or data fusion. If you already have a robot platform and know what you want to do with more capable hardware, I’d simply go for the two boards. On the other hand, if you’re looking for an experimentation platform, then the Mech is worth considering. It has a dozen touch pads and does cradle the board(s) nicely. The LED eyes, nose, and mouth don’t do anything for me, but again, it’s handy to have LEDs already wired in circuit for testing purposes. Whatever your robot platform, check out the RobotSee site. And, if you need more computational capacity, consider the fully configured Mech. SV