Meeting Minutes for Sunday, 01/10/10

The meeting was called to order by Tony Stram at 1305.  He introduced the new officers:
    President – Salvador Garcia
    Vice President – Tony Stram
    Secretary – Don Kerste
    Competition Committee Chairman – Terry Jackson
    Webmaster – Royce Pipkins (graciously agreed to serve again this year)
Our new officers modestly acknowledged a spontaneous standing ovation, and the meeting then proceeded, closely following the unpublished agenda.

Tony gave the treasurer’s report.  Details will eventually be made available in the active members’ section of the ChiBots website.  It was duly noted (several times) that dues for 2010 are now payable.  Dues for individuals and entire families are $20/year.  Several expenditures are pending: Royce for parts used in making the competition awards medals, Don for materials used in making the ChiBall arena, and Don for materials needed for ChiBotica, 2009.  Tony is still trying to find a video projector at a good price for the club to own.  He is seeking a good DLP unit, as the initial outlay and replacement lamps are said to be less costly than for conventional projectors where the light must pass through a display cell.  Tom W. donated a new, 3-conductor, 3-outlet extension cord to the club.  Donations from other members are always welcome.

Volunteers are still needed to serve as Chairmen* for three other committees: Program, Membership and Publicity.  Salvador asked members interested in these positions to contact him.  It will save future arm-twisting and aid our President in making these appointments.  It has been said that in any organization, 10% of the people do 90% of the work.  However, ChiBots cannot proceed, or perhaps even survive should those percentages continue to prevail.  The concept of “active membership” will be presented both on the website, and then in open discussion at the February meeting.

Due to technical difficulties, the presentation on UAVs planned for the 1/10 meeting could not be done.  It has been rescheduled for the March meeting.  In February Eric G. is expected to present on robotic vision, with a demo of software that he has developed.  The platform used is a modification of the LynxMotion BRAT walker. Check out < www.lynxmotion.com/Product.aspx?productID=532&CategoryID= >.

With no program available, it was decided to use much of the remaining time to further discuss club business and to do some planning for the future.  It was decided that only members who have paid dues will be allowed to vote, and will be eligible for the door prize raffle.  The sign-in sheet will grow each month, and will indicate dues status at the beginning of each meeting.  There will be an opportunity to pay dues during each meeting prior to drawing for the raffle, which allows folks who have just arrived to join in the opportunity to win a prize.  Unless we have a plethora of prizes, there will be only one drawing per meeting.

There was considerable discussion about how ChiBots should communicate with members.  Three elements were considered: enhanced use of our website; continuation of the group mail; and use of the forum provided by Trossen Robotics.  The ChiBots website can certainly be improved, primarily by information developed and posted by active members.  The officers will consider how best to approach this solution and report back to the members.  Many members were in favor of continuing the group mail hosted by Yahoo!  This works, and provides an automatic achieve of all postings back to the beginning of the group.  Finally, the forum, which has been in existence for over a year.  There are almost no postings to the forum.  Members simply do not use it, although it is favored by a few.  When we had a forum at the beginning of RoboMagellan, the President at the time (me) started multiple threads/topics.  However, there were few entries.  In desperation, controversial (and some deliberately incorrect or debatable) entries were made with the hope of attracting more comments.  This did not work either.  The behavior of our members over time strongly suggests that the Yahoo! group mail best serves our needs.  For fun one can sign up at the AVR Freaks forum and search “PWM”.  Per Tony S. there are over 200 pages, so good luck in finding what you want in a large forum (“patience” being the operative term).

The issue of “meeting focus” was considered at length.  Roger B. noted that the most successful club he had joined had a short program every month that taught attendees something new.  This was not necessarily anything extremely advanced or technical, but always was something that could be readily learned and applied.  This observation might well be a key to the solution that we have been seeking.

Other suggestions included giving more emphasis to robot building, programming and competition.  In the December meeting Scott M. brought parts sufficient to build a number of basic robots.  Only two members participated in the build session.  Both were experienced and skilled in building mobile robots from scratch.  From this we might decide that what people say they want is not necessarily what they really want.  Or, it could just have been an “off” meeting, as it occurred during the holiday season.

While teaching programming is beyond the purview of a club meeting only once a month, what can be done is to have people bring their laptops to a meeting, and allow programming software (BASCOM, WinAVR, AVR Studio, etc) to be installed.  Then they can learn how to actually compile and a load a provided (as source code) program into an AVR MCU.  This brand of MCU appears to be favored by members over PIC, Renesas, Freescale, ARM7/ARM9-based, 8051-based, Cypress PSoC, etc MCUs.  Realistically, only one brand of MCU can be supported.  An alternative to not teaching programming at all is to take either the Arduino simplification of C, BASCOM, or C/C++ language and provide weekly online classes, as offered by Eddy some time ago (for BASCOM).  However, there are alternatives for members to pursue, especially regarding learning how to program.  There has been an adequate series on C programming that has been running in Nuts and Volts.  It begins with the AVR Butterfly (Mega169) and continues with the Arduino (Mega328) using a free, optimizing C compiler.

Related to providing guidance in learning programming, we might consider what was accomplished by the fourth-grader who won the last International Robotics Competition “Urban Challenge” (see SERVO, 9/09, pp 58 - 63).  The IRC is a Java-based programming challenge open to elementary and high school students.  They mostly run iRobot Create bots (Tom W has/had one).  The 10-y/o winner, with no previous programming experience, learned the required Java language in a week of workshops run by Sun MicroSystems.  This suggests that folks who do not want to follow the route of learning to program by doing (and reading/understanding the source code of others), could instead take an evening course offered by several schools.  However, one could begin with the Arduino (or clone) and its simplified language, and then later move to C on the same platform, using a free compiler and GUI editor.

Finally, there were many suggestions regarding competitions.  While ideas (see below) are easy enough to toss off, implementation is altogether another matter.  At the 9/09 meeting Rick B suggested developing a non-competitive, tag-like game with a focus on having fun, rather than on winning.  Eddy W picked up the ball and designed his version of a TagBot.  Don K suggested another direction (maybe later), but Eddy had already started building.  Kevin F showed up at Chibotica in October with a TagBot demo, and brought his bot to the 1/10 meeting.  If Eddy can make it to the 2/14 meeting, and Don can get his act together, we might be able to see how five TagBots interact.  We are looking for fun, and emergent behaviors.  While the TagBots all have Eddy’s line sensor, this is not used for the interactive demo, so running on a patterned carpet should have no adverse effect.  Yes, of course, a TagBot can do line following, run a maze, etc.  And potentially much more, as you may eventually see.

Terry J suggested having at least one competition where the robot is prohibited from having an MCU.  This could be something simple like hill climbing, drag racing, basic line following, or even more complex games (see the SolarBotics Sumovore < http://www.solarbotics.com/products/k_sv/ >).  Salvador G had previously suggested a version of ‘capture the flag’ done by cooperative robots (think “soccer-playing bots”), and Eric G had previously suggested bots carrying air-soft guns.  A version of this does exist where the bots are walkers, but there appears to be room for other approaches.  Tony suggested a game where multiple miniSumo robots would need to cooperate to accomplish a task, e.g., pushing a block out of the ring that was too heavy for a single bot to move.  Finally, a ‘treasure hunt’ game was suggested (sorry, name missed) and Don noted that bots could be designed to locate and drive through arches.  Under each arch there could be a simplified bar code that once read, would direct the bot to the next arch in the sequence.  Of course, this code could also be used in other ways, e.g., as a ‘hint’ in a maze, found at a few of the intersections.  While there seems to be no shortage of possible games (one needs only to read the list of 70 RoboGames events at < http://robogames.net/ >), it is the actual design and building of the robots that seems to present a problem.  Perhaps more attention could be given to what needs to occur to get folks building.  Obstacles to building were not discussed due to time constraints.

Several members indicated an interest in seeing more robots on the ChiBots website, as well as having links to sources of parts and assemblies, and notification re the upcoming meetings.  Don noted that a few years ago the club had a four-page information flier that included the names of other robot clubs, with links to their websites, as well as links to manufacturers and sources of parts.  Those fliers were printed up courtesy of our third President, Mike D, but are no longer available, and have yet to be replaced.  The same might be said for the former tri-fold handout.

Tony described his Mega48 controller board (upgradeable to an –88, -168 or –328).  This was developed specifically to replace the controller board of a Parallax SumoBot, the latter having only a BASIC Stamp2 on board.  While the SumoBot is an old product (doesn’t even have a BStamp 2e as did the ChiBots Alpha board – no longer in production due to lack of support by our members), there are a lot of them around, and they are still being sold (see < http://www.parallax.com/tabid/412/Default.aspx >).  Unlike Eddy’s ChiBots Controller Board (also featuring a Mega48), Tony’s board does not have an on-board dual-motor driver (FAN8200).  It can, however, directly control a number of servos, send IR and handle IR receivers.  It is easy enough to add a dual-motor controller board for only $8.45 (+ S&H; see < http://www.pololu.com/catalog/product/713 >).  The chip on this motor board is used in the Pololu 3pi.

Scott added information re the miniSumo chassis that has been designed for Tony’s controller board.  Last year several members joined in providing ideas and suggestions for the preliminary design that Tony and Scott brought to a meeting.  Then Don further described the drag racing competition, following an outline proposed earlier in the day to Tony.  This is a game that can be run in our regular meeting room, which is 45 feet long.  It can be designed from the outset to span only 35 feet, and thus would be able to run unmodified at ChiBotica, where the venue is 40 feet in the maximum dimension.  If there is sufficient interest in this type of game, it can be further developed and presented at a meeting.  Kevin described his use of Batch PBC, which gives him double-sided boards at about $2.50/sq in, complete with solder masks and silk screening.  Other sources of PC boards were discussed.  The members appear to favor Eagle software for circuit layout and development of Gerber and drill files.

Show, Tell and Ask had some interesting things.  Tony showed his highly-modified SumoBot, complete with his new controller board and extra batteries.  Don brought his book entitled “C Programming for Microcontrollers”, by Joe Pardue.  Much of this text also appears in Joe’s Nuts and Volts series on C programming.  There are also books at < http://store.servomagazine.com > entitled “Beginner’s Guide to Embedded C Programming”, Volumes 1 and 2.  Kevin showed an LED display board that he developed, complete with custom-designed circuit boards that hold two rows of LEDs and plug into adjacent boards.  He also brought his remote-controlled (from an MCU) arm that directs a red laser (chasing the spot is a favored pastime for his cat), and also showed his TagBot as mentioned previously.  Al R brought his new 3pi robot, and got what is hopefully some useful feedback from other members who have experience with this bot.  Adam B (a new member) brought several laser-related items, including an 800 nm pump and a handheld green laser pointer.

There was really much more to this very interesting (and long-winded) meeting, but these minutes have already become far too long.  Future editions will be much shorter, as a significant amount of meeting time will be used for the presentation.  While the presentations will be briefly summarized, we hope that many of them will eventually reside on the ChiBots website.  And, before you email me to say how long it took you to read these overly-extended minutes, let me tell you how long it took to type them...   (much too long).

Submitted 01/12/10
Don Kerste, Secretary

*These minutes will continue to be politically incorrect, at least as related to gender.