Glenn's Junk Chest

An assortment of Glenn's writings, photography, gaming resources, flash movies, and other creative output.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

20 Good Things: 1 - Lego Mindstorms NXT

Well, as part of the Christmas festivities, my family picked up the new Lego Mindstorms robotics kit. As someone who owned the old kit, allow me to say that they've made a lot of cool improvements.

Our Tribot
For one thing, they've switched from a brick-based building primitive (the studded bricks used in traditional legos) to a girder, pillar, and beam based system, and it's a big improvement. The problem with the studs was that an operation that produced a lot of torque would have a tendency to disconnect the bricks, meaning that over time, your robot would literally tear itself apart. The new system isn't like that at all. It's still easy enough to build (and take apart) but it's also very sturdy once built.

The second notable improvement is the CPU and the associated programming language. While there's still a lot of alternative systems for doing the truly powerful development, the basic NXT-G development model isn't bad. I worked with Ivy on it for a while today, and was very impressed.

While the sensors are predictably improved, and the addition of the new ultrasonic rangefinder is pretty cool, I really want to mention the improvement made to the servos. In the old design, the motors didn't really deliver enough torque to do many of the tasks that were needed, so building a robot often meant spending hours trying to figure out exactly how to get your gears all placed properly so that you could gear down the motor. In the new kit, the gearing is all inside the servos, and they are very robust. If you want to use one to move your robot around, for instance, you can just stick a wheel right on the servo itself. In fact, you can have a working basic robot (the tribot) in about an hour out of the box, and if you've got another hour, you can add the sensors as well.

Finally, this time around the software that comes with it is Mac-compatible, which means I get to use it without having to find a special machine. There's a problem with my Intel-based Mac CPU communicating with the brick via Bluetooth, but the USB cable works fine, and isn't too cumbersome, and hopefully the Bluetooth thing will get fixed soon too.

Right now I've just built the Tribot, and am working on programming it to do fun things. If I build anything else interesting, I'll try and get a photo up.

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