Finishing the firefighting robot

Posted by Erica on Apr 20, 2012 in Electronics, Making |

As I write, we are on our way to the Abington Firefighting Competition. Up until last night, I was not certain that we would make it. In the previous post I mentioned various gremlins with the motor control system. Running at a lower voltage more or less made them go away. It worked so well that I could no longer use current surges for stall detection, because they weren’t large enough. I did add the heatsink too when it arrived. Nevertheless, there were enough little problems that it was hard to get an unbroken block of time to debug. And I had many new features to add, including the fire extinguisher.

I am very proud of my fire sensor. It is based on the Rockhopper design, but since there were no schematics I had to figure a few things out. I found that using four photodiodes instead of one did increase sensitivity, and gave a sharper angular peak — very desirable if oriented properly. As usual, there was some trial and error. I discovered that the photodiode responds to the frequencies emitted at the base of the candle flame. Thus the tea candles that I originally tested with were a disaster, because when they burned for a little while the interior hollowed out and covered that part of the flame. The diodes are also sensitive to candle height, so I spread them out to cover the maximum allowable range in the competition, 2 inches.

Robotic fire sensor

Figuring out how to mount everything on increasingly limited space was a challenge as well. Ultimately the flame sensor went on a butter container, with the fan mounted on the side. All of these were then attached to a servo, which sits in a rectangular opening cut nicely by my new power saw. Again, all very time consuming.

So by yesterday I realized that I would not have time to get the navigation reliable for the entire maze. And therefore, I have lowered my sights a bit. Abington offers a “single room mode”, where you can pick ahead of time the place you would like the candle to be. As long as your robot can make it to that one room, then, you are in good shape. There is a 3-minute penalty added to your time, which means that you are not going to win unless everyone else crashes (or chooses the same option). I was disappointed to have to do this, but I suspect I’m not the only one. Looking on YouTube, there are a suspiciously high number of videos with robots finding the candle in the first room they look at, and it’s the easiest room to get to.

I have had a number of surprises working on this project. Everything felt very rushed, as I had only two months to work and no experience. I had to make design compromises. These included using an Arduino Mega, motor shield, and breadboards, as opposed to wiring everything individually. One surprise was how well this worked. I thought there would be issues with wires popping out of the breadboard or falling out of the Arduino headers. As it turned out, they worked extremely well. I cut the wires precisely and used the proper housings and…it just worked. What did not work well were the screw terminals. I had many problems with the battery leads coming out and the same with the motor leads. Since screw terminals are supposed to be more reliable, this was an unpleasant discovery.

The Arduino works with C or C++. After years of working with Java and its automatic memory management, I knew going back to C++ would be painful. It was worse than expected. If you write a buggy program on a computer, you usually get a nice error message. On a microcontroller, your only clue may be when things suddenly to act weird. And in the worst case, you can completely lose the ability to communicate with the board and get rid of the faulty code. At one point I thought a coding error had bricked an expensive board. Finally I found a suggestion of sticking a large capacitor between the ground and reset pins to prevent automatic resets, and that eventually worked. Quite a scare though. Flawed code is quite easy to write, with no warnings about dereferenced pointers or default values. I learned to put in a few seconds delay at the beginning of the program to allow some time for communication before any errors surfaced. That was not 100% foolproof, though, as some global objects get constructed first. So I had to make the constructors dead simple and call separate setup functions on the objects later. Even then, sometimes, problems.

I did get to appreciate how much work the Arduino folks did to make a microcontroller usable by “normal” people. They are hard to work with. The trade-off is that you lose power; for example, the board runs at a much slower clock speed than needed, because to change that would mean rewriting older code. And the Arduino IDE is hardly suitable for a large code base (which I eventually had), with no line numbers and certainly no way to find function usages, etc. There was no time to configure another IDE this round, but next time, that will happen.

This was one of the hardest things I have ever done. The intellectual challenges were constant, with no time to delay or rest. It was harder than my big challenge last year, Mountains of Misery; as hard as it was, that was only ten hours with the last one being truly hard. This required intense drive for weeks, and there were many times I was tempted to throw in the towel.

This morning I tuned the candle-finding algorithm, put in the required red button start switch, and added two joystick functions the kids will need for their remote control portion: turning the fan on/off and swiveling the servo. The Robot Operating System has done very well for the remote control part, it was fun to work with.

Here is a video of FireCheetah navigating the maze and putting out a candle. I got it working even better by the afternoon, but this should give a good idea. Let’s hope he does as well tomorrow!

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  • Balu says:

    Hi, I want to design a simple fire figting Robot , similar to the one in this post .. Can you guide me how to start that ..?


  • Erica says:

    Hi Balu, thanks for yyour interest. I don’t have a schematic for this robot posted or pplans to do that. If you look through my posts you will see some discussion of specific components and links to useful resources. For offline, the book Robot Builder’s Bonanza by Gordon McComb is recommended. Hope this helps and good luck!

  • […] I’ve mentioned before, developing on microcontrollers is not for the faint of heart. I don’t think I’ve ever had to upgrade a compiler in all my years of commercial […]

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