Robot Builder Profile: Matt Bauer and the Robonova-1 (Video)

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There's tremendous interest in bipedal robots, especially since the KHR-1 and Robonova-1 robot kits have been featured recently on television and in major publications. We've been getting a lot of questions asking how difficult the kits are, and what it takes to actually put one together. So, we tracked down Matt Bauer who just finished putting assembling his first bipedal robot - a Robonova-1 - and asked him to share his experiences with all of you. 


We ran into Matt on the Robosavvy.com robotics forum (more on this later), read through a couple of his posts, and were totally impressed by his knowledge, posts, and his first video report showing his new robot in action.

One of the things that we really liked from the beginning was Matt's open and frank attitude. He really seems to want to help others have a really positive and successful robotics experience. And, he doesn't pull his punches. He's polite about it, but he does tell you clearly and directly what he thinks - which is very refreshing.

We definitely put Matt through the wringer, as you can easily see from the interview below. We asked him to really go into a lot of detail. And, without any prompting on our part, he put together a fantastic new video especially for this article -


Pretty amazing isn't it?

Tons of questions popped into our mind when we first saw that. Things like - how did Matt get involved with robotics? How did he learn? Why did he choose the Robonova-1? What problems did he run into? If it can do that, what more can it do? How easy is it to modify and add on to?

Here's what Matt had to say-

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  Matt and his robot

Lem: What was it that first triggered your interest in robotics?

Matt: Like so many of us, I took apart anything I could get my hands on. Seldom did that stuff end up making it back together correctly. The first robot I was ever introduced to, was on a page in one of the Christmas catalogues (Sears I think). I can't recall what it was called, but he came with a serving tray and a remote that had more buttons on it than any TV remote at the time. Far outside my allocated Christmas gift budget, I settled with just dreaming about it.

   My parents have always been pretty supportive in the things I took interest in. They suggested I go to the library, which I did, and found several books about building robots. It opened my eyes to the possibility of actually being able to make my own robot. My dad busted out his old erector sets, and it was on. Actually, the robot theme dissipated for a spell after that. I was just in tune for creating things. Anything mechanical grabbed me, not just robots.

   Lego had a big part in it as well. I've got bins full of those bricks still to this day. I bought my first "robot", the Armatron from RadioShack. I ended up taking it apart and found that a single motor, along with a series of clutch mechanisms, axles and gears, was the only thing giving it the ability to move in so many different directions. The Robosapien uses a similar method to create it's movements. That just fascinated me, and carried on after that.

Lem: How about your background and training? Did you study electronics, physics, engineering...?

Matt: Well, if on your own counts, then yeah. I could say I've studied a little. No, actually at 29 I just started college early this last January. High school was a little "shaky" to say the least, and I didn't have much of an interest in following up with more schooling afterward. But that's all changed. I finally figured out what I wanted to do with my life, and am doing it. Sometimes it takes a while... a decade or so in some cases.

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Lem: Can you share a little about what you do for a living? Do you work in a technical industry?

Matt: At work, it's my job is to fabricate, assemble, wire, paint, test, and maintain diesel generators that are sold the government. It's helped hone my skills in the electro-mechanical areas. There's no room for error with mil-spec. A lot of what I've learned there is reflected in my projects.

Lem: Is robotics a hobby for you?

Matt: It's at very least a hobby. Robotics is one of those hobbies that ends up consuming you. I mean, it's a pretty broad subject. It covers such a vast number of different fields, and it is quite a lot for one person to take in on their own. I'm a big fan of online forums.It's an excellent resource for finding and giving out helpful information as well as seeing what other people have been developing. ...and maybe show off your own stuff.

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Lem: Do you think of yourself as more of a 'hardware', 'software', or 'hacker' type?

Matt: Hmmm. I think a little bit of them all.  I'm most proficient mechanically, so I'd say I'm more of a hardware type of guy than anything. However... Not to tell another life story here, but one day feeling bored - I bought a book on Visual Basic 6, and started programming.  I started out writing self-specific applications simply to make software that could encapsulate my way of doing things on the PC.

   I soon grew anxious to move beyond the screen, and apply functions to outside devices. Robotics allowed me to do just that. A lot of people think I'm crazy, but programming is fun. To write your own software for your robot, makes it all that much more your own... especially if you've bought a kit.

Lem: What direction is that leading you in...?

Matt: Right now I'm tackling Bluetooth for the first time, but I have plans... oh yes. Unlike most software that comes with a robotic kit, I can deal with RoboBASIC for right now. It's pretty easy to work with apart from a few minor bugs, and isn't as constrictive as some might think. I'll say it covers the essentials.

   I had thought of starting with the RoboRemmocon app. I'm an artist by nature, and It turns me into one of those graphical/pictorial types. I want to set up a Hierarchy of pose sequences, starting with say, five or so "standard" poses. By selecting one of the std.'s it'd enable a range of poses specific to that root pose, and disable the ones that weren't compatible. etc. etc. I could probably code it alone within the RoboBasic application, but wouldn't it be less confusing, and cooler to be able to see it?

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Lem: From your comments I get the impression you've worked with some other robotics systems before...

Matt: I'd say that the Lego Mindstorms sets started it off really. By the time I got into it, there was a lot of information already available. Hundreds, if not thousands of developers shared their knowledge and rese arch openly. It gave me my first real opportunity to learn, and make a connection between my own VB6 code and a micro controller.

   I moved up to the VEX Robotics products, which used components that were less "glossy" I guess you could say. They were more of what you'd find if you were going to build a stable robot that would not break apart from ramping over, or into an obstacle. Anymore, I use my Lego parts for prototyping. When I had a design I liked, and it functioned the way I intended, I could then construct it out of VEX parts. I built several ROV-type bots this way.

Lem: At this point, there are several different biped robot kits out there. How did you happen to settle on the Robonova-1?

Matt: I was looking for example construction designs for a robotic arm to mount on a ROV, when I stumbled into the world of humanoids. In fact, I am pretty sure it was this very site (Robots Dreams) where I first saw the KHR-1 do a cartwheel.

   I couldn't believe it. I thought, "Now that was cool!"

   My first reaction was to tear apart my ROV and start constructing my own humanoid. Nothing I had in my possession really met the criteria of that type of bot. I started fabricating aluminum brackets at work, and pricing digital servos, micro controllers, and such. Adding everything up that it'd take to build a humanoid of my own, it became apparent that it would probably be financially beneficial if I were to just buy a kit and be done with it. I could always make modifications if I didn't like it.

   I ended up choosing the Robonova-1 because it was newer I guess. The Kondo paved the way for the "affordable" servo powered humanoid. Being first also meant the KHR-1 had to undergo many changes to adapt to what the users expected out of them. Coming in second as a developer of humanoids, would have its advantages.

   I knew of Hitec's reputation for having quality products used in the RC hobbyist community. Like Kondo's red label, Hitec developed a digital servo also made specifically for robots. The kit already comes with 16 HSR-8498HB robot servos, with carbide gears. They should last a long time before needing repairs, and offer plenty of torque for my needs.

   With the Robonova powered on, I can push down on him fairly hard without him budging an inch. It amazes me really, how much force one of those little black boxes can exert. So watch your fingers, he'll give you a blood blister in 0.17 seconds if you're not careful.

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Lem: So you made a decision, pulled out your plastic, placed your order, and this box full of parts arrived on your doorstep. I guess I might feel pretty intimidated by the challenge at that point. What happened next?

Matt: Upon opening the box, all the parts seemed nicely packaged and organized in Styrofoam and labeled plastic baggies. "Oh this is gonna' be fun" I thought.

   Eh, don't get me wrong, it was, BUT...

   It takes some time and it's definitely work. The manual specified only needing a screwdriver, but my large digits required the use of a pair of needle-nose pliers. Get this, I went through four #1 screwdrivers before driving back to work to snag my good ones. I don't know what it was, but the hundreds of screws rounded off the edges of my household drivers. Those of you who swear by the power screwdriver, better put it away. Even those that have a torque setting on them aren't worth the trouble you'll have if you screw up a screw-hole (no pun intended). You can probably get away using one to remove the long screws in the servos, but using one on such fine threads into plastic is just a bad idea.

   After he was all put together, I charged him up, calibrated the zero offset, and loaded the template program. I placed him on the floor, flipped the power switch, and "do-da-dee". He chimed, the blue LED lit, and he stood up. After running though the motion sequences he came with, I thought it would be a good idea to challenge the "catch and play" feature of RoboBasic. We'll see if it's as easy as they say. As you can probably make out from the video, it was.

Lem: It seems very straight forward. Didn't you run into any problems?

Matt: One trouble I did have with Robonova is that the blue LED, indicating a low battery, would never stop flashing. This seemed to disrupt the IR communication being sent from the remote, so I outright disabled the code. This looks to be the case with several other (but not all) Robonovas that were purchased recently. It was a simple fix, and may play around with the algorithm later to see about fixing it.

Lem: If you had the chance to make any suggestions for improvement to the manufacturer, what would you tell them?

Matt: Well, the manual is translated, but it is still lacking in areas. It doesn't go into too much detail on the hows and whys, especially in the programming sections. but like so many instruction manuals, it was not meant to be a lesson. The small book relies on pictures as reference often, and because of it, can be somewhat misleading during assembly.

   I have read through the KHR-1 manual, and find the translation. . . interesting. The Robonova manual is written much better in comparison. But this is just how it is right now. As the products mature, I'm sure better revisions will be made. For now, I would make some friends on the internet forums if  you find yourself stuck and need a little help. You'll find lots of people who have faced many different obstacles, and would be happy to share the results of their experiences.

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Lem: So, what's next on your agenda? Do you have your sights set on entering any robot competitions, for example?

Matt: I would love to see  Robo-One-like tournaments start sprouting up here in the states. As far as I know, nothing national has been set up for the "J-class" (as classified by Robo-One) combat humanoid. If I get too antsy, I'll just have to book a flight to Japan. My sister and brother-in-law lived there for a few months and liked it quite a bit. Besides, I could always use a vacation. I know students are eligible to compete in FIRST, and of course we've all seen BattleBots on TV at one time or another.

   I can see the humanoid having its 15 minutes of fame too. Who wouldn't want to produce a show pinning 'em up against each other. They're ridiculously fun to watch. Am I wrong?

Lem: You're right on target. They are a huge amount of fun to watch, and even more fun to experiment (and play) with. How would you compare this robot to others that our readers might have?

Matt: I own a Robosapien as well. Now this is just my opinion, but he seems be more of a novelty than anything. There are several of you out there hacking away at the guy, and coming up with some novel concepts. I'm not knocking you. I'm just saying that right off the shelf, he was designed to gross high levels of profit. Entertain the kids long enough to make 'em want to buy one. Unless you hack it, your stuck with a farting Teddy Ruxpin (How many of you remember him?). The V2 however, I don't know enough about to leave a comment except WowWee must had made enough off their last line. It seems they realized the consumer sought more after something they could work with and program, than just chase off cats.

   Out of all the robots I've ever had or built, nothi ng quite measures up to this fella'. The Robonova is strong, agile, and precise with his movements. I think the best part about it is that it's still not finished. The amount of expansion the controller alone is capable of handling... He'll run out of room under his hood, before all the I/O's. fill up. Sensors, more servos, gyros, and all the other goodies. I think it's wonderful that Hitec was able to keep the price low and not have to compromise the quality of their product.

Lem: What level of expertise and experience do you think people should have if they attempt putting together a robot kit like this? Would you encourage them to try it?

Matt: I work in a field where I "practice" assembling intricate components every day. It is probably a little more natural for me to put a kit together than someone else may find it to be. I wouldn't let that discourage anyone from doing it. As long as you're not in a big rush to get the thing slapped together, it can be a great learning experience and a real benefit. If you want it now, you're better off buying the "ready to walk" version.

   Those of you who don't want to miss out, and might be new to robotics, just take your time. Figure out why that part is supposed to go  there... Ask yourself questions and do the research. The pieces will start to fall in place, and at some point, it hits you. It all makes sense. And you'll have confidence in being able to modify, or emulate well engineered components.

Lem: Are there any online resources or forums that you would recommend they check out?

Matt: If you're looking for help, or just want to learn some more, hop on www.robosavvy.com, and browse their forums. It's one of my favorites. And, if you're lookin' to get a hold of me, you can contact me at nerds@earthlink.net. Be sure to place "ROBONOVA" in the subject header, or I probably won't get it.

Lem: Thanks a lot Matt. Your work, and success with the Robonova-1 is really impressive. I'm sure our readers will be looking forward to hearing more from you, and even to having their robot go face to face against your's in the ring one of these days.. 

Interested in learning more about the Robonova-1? Limor and his younger brother just posted a step by step walk-through on the Robosavvy website documenting how they put a Robonova-1 together with lots of great photos and instructions. You can check it out at http://robosavvy.com/Robonova/1.

Related links:

Matt's new website - under construction - Matt says look for it to go live by the end of February

Robosavvy.com - the website and user forum where we originally ran into Matt.

Hitec Robotics website - Robonova-1 manufacturer (English) 

You might also enjoy:

  1. Robot Builder Profile: Team Cosmos – Champion Robot Builders
  2. Robot Builder Profile: Ionitron and the X-VEAAT Robot (Video)
  3. Robot Builder Profile: Audio Interview with Sean Jefferies
  4. Around The Web – 12/9/2005
  5. Robonova – Up Close & Personal (Video)
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4 comments

  1. This text has made me begin makin robots :D

  2. Thank you itstou. That really means a lot to me.

  3. david hodgson

    Evening Matt
    Reading your article on robonova i too am suffering from the blue light flashing on & off causing problems with the ir remote,Therefore could you please help me & tell me how to disable this,your help would gratefully be appreciated
    Thanks
    David

  4. Hi! I am Ryan from Macao Science Center.
    Do you have some program file (bas.)about the robonova dance? Can you share to me if you have? I wish to make a demonstration on the stage in robotics gallery. Up to now, I have one Kung Fu bas. and one dance bas.
    Thank you for your attention!
    My email is ryanlei@msc.org.mo or waiiplei@yahoo.com
    I wish you can help me…

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