January 8, 2013

Hackable Lego Robot Runs Linux

A hackable new Linux robot will be ready to roll late this summer, not to mention walk, crawl, and slither. The Lego Mindstorms EV3 is the first major revamp of the Lego Group's programmable robot kit since 2006, and the first to run embedded Linux.

Unveiled at the CES Show in Las Vegas yesterday, with the first public demos starting today at the Kids Play Summit at the Venetian Hotel, the $350 robot is built around an upgraded "Intelligent Brick" computer. Lego swapped out the previous microcontroller for a 300MHz ARM9 processor capable of running new Linux-based firmware. As a result, the kids-oriented Mindstorms EV3 offers far more programmability than the NXT series, which was last updated in 2009, says Lego.


Users can string together up to four bricks, each with the faster CPU, more RAM (64MB) and internal flash memory (16MB), and a new 32GB-ready SD slot for loading programming code. One key enhancement is a USB port supporting WiFi dongles and other peripherals.

In addition, each brick adds "full" Android and iOS compatibility for remote control via Bluetooth 2.1. Some earlier Mindstorms models had been hacked for limited Android control, but now the capability is built in.

The major new robotics feature is a set of infrared sensor "eyes" that let the robot detect objects up to six feet away. This lets the robot more effectively respond to events, for example, following users or shooting balls at detected motion. There's also a gyro and an improved color sensor. Features that have been continued from the earlier NXT design include multiple servo motors, a speaker, an ultrasonic sensor, and two touch sensors. The kit ships with 594 Lego-style Technic parts.

Linux and Onscreen Interface Enable Direct Hacks

Lego will provide building instructions for 17 robots, ranging from treadmill-based bots to walking humanoids to robotic spiders, scorpions, and snakes. With the new Linux firmware and I/O options, many more robot designs and capabilities are possible, says the Lego Group. The company is encouraging users to share their programs and designs on the Mindstorms community website.

The hackability is enhanced with expanded controls available on the brick's button-controlled, 178 x 128-pixel LCD interface. Users can now program many functions directly, in addition to the previous ability to download programs from a desktop computer.

This more direct access is said to fulfill a major request from users, especially educators: the capability to build robots quickly and experiment directly. Lego claims a simple robot can now be built in 20 minutes, all without plugging into a PC. The more direct access should not only grab the attention of kids, but also ease trial and error iteration, letting users debug and experiment on the fly.

To ease the learning curve, Lego has added an Autodesk-based 3D building application offering step-by-step instructions for different designs. (It's initially available only on the iPad.) Lego is also touting the kit's greater multi-language support.

The upgraded desktop development software is backward compatible to earlier NXT bricks, offering object-oriented programming tools and extensions to major robotics languages. It's unclear, however, whether desktop Linux will be added to the earlier Windows and Mac support.

An expanded educational version of the kit will offer more customizable curriculum and other tools aligned with Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education Coalition guidelines. Since it launched in 1998, Mindstorms has been popular among constructivist educators looking for hands-on STEM learning tools. The Mindstorms software is based loosely on Logo Lego, a version of Seymour Papert's object-oriented Logo programming language developed in the 1980's in a collaboration between Lego and MIT Media Lab. (For more on the education version[1], see this Wired report [2].)

Lego Mindstorms is not the only Linux-based robot kit around -- and it's certainly not the most advanced -- but with its installed base and name recognition, it's likely to quickly take the lead. For some other cool Linux robots, including several open source, educationally focused options like Qbo and DARwin-OP, see our recent Linux robot slide show [3].

[1] www.legoeducation.us/mindstorms

[2] http://www.wired.com/geekdad/2013/01/new-lego-mindstorms-coming/