I was at the Freescale Technology Forum when I saw the Jade Robot rolling around the floor. I always like to take a closer look at robots but what intrigued me was their educational support since I also help run Mercer Science and Engineering Fair.

I spoke with Myke Predko, cofounder of Mimetics, about their Jade Robot that targets students, hobbyists and robotic developers.

Wong: Can you tell me about the Jade Robot.

Predko: The Jade Robot (Fig. 1) is a programmable rover with a built in user interface, expansion capabilities (including gripper and camera) as well as built in USB and Bluetooth communications.  Free development tools are available as “Google Applications” along with Cloud based user accounts allowing the user to simply install the tools (without being logged on as an “Administrator”) and access their data anywhere without the need of emailing or saving on USB thumb drives.

Wong: What is the background of the development team?

Predko: Mimetics’ founders have 13 years’ experience bringing robotics to over 14,000 students in classrooms and workshops.  There is a lot of gray hair and experience in the Jade Robot’s design team with their experience designing products for large OEMs including IBM, RIM (Blackberry), Logitech and CAE.  Along with this, we also have experience as FIRST Mentors.

Wong: What is the target audience for the Jade Robot?

Predko: The Jade Robot has been targeted for several different markets. These include STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) introduction and outreach for children 12 to 14 years old, high school and college/university students learning about robotics and programming, and hobbyists.

Wong: What other robots are in Jade Robot’s class?

Predko: There are a number of options available. There are robots based on the popular Arduino and Raspberry Pi platforms (see “Arduino, Raspberry Pi or BeagleBone?”). Two other major platforms include LEGO “Mindstorms” and VEX IQ.

Wong: How does the Jade Robot differ from these products?

Predko: The Jade Robot’s requirements were based on our discussions with teachers and students, understanding what their needs are and what they would be looking for in a product. Having a pre-assembled unit was key.  While many competing products are kits or are the basis of a design-your-own robot, many teachers felt that is a detriment due to the length of time required for assembly, the “plateauing” of energy on the part of the students when assembly was complete and the reluctance of students to disassemble the robots or modify them when they were finished.

The next issue was bare PCBs.  All teachers that we met with did not see a plastic case enclosing the electronics to be an asset – they felt that too much technology students are exposed to is hidden in covers, making technology “magical” and difficult.  Having the components available to the students takes away a lot of the mystery and perception that it is overly complicated

Having a built in user interface makes a difference.  Typically robots only have a few LEDs and maybe a buzzer to provide the programmer with feedback with what is happening within the robot.  The Jade Robot’s OLED based UI along with polyphonic sound input provides a significant higher level of operating feedback.

Another feature was On-Robot-Programming.  Having the ability to program the robot using the built in user interface provides the Jade Robot with the ability to be used in a wide variety of venues without the need for PCs for programming making the Jade Robot much more accessible.

We also included a built in file system.  Typical small robots (with Raspberry Pi being the exception) can only have the ability to store one program at a time.  The Jade Robot is able to store many different programs (which can be selected using the user interface) as well as store, graphic images, sounds and user interface framework (called “Panels”) files.

The ability to download, run and debug applications using the built in Bluetooth interface was on the list as well.  Typically robots have a serial, USB or JTAG interface for programming – all which require a hard link to the robot.  The Bluetooth interface was a big hit with customers who eschewed the use of the USB interface for the Bluetooth.

Finally, development tools and interfaces designed need to be installed in PCs without the need of “Administrator” login.  This is a significant issue for school boards and other large organizations where IT departments are needed to evaluate and install software and device drivers.  In talking to our customers, this was a significant concern and something that we worked to avoid through the use of the Google App, the Jade Robot’s HID USB interface and Bluetooth SPP interface.

Wong: Were there other things you did different when designing the Jade Robot?

Predko: All mechanical prototyping was done using a 3D printer.  This allowed for experimentation and debugging of the chassis (which is quite a complex molding) without the need for prototype molds or reworking the final product. We have used the 3D printer for prototyping the gripper design we have created for the Jade Robot.

The use of an RTOS as the basis for the software.  While most small robots still use an 8bit processor, we decided to go with a 32bit Cortex M4 (Freescale Kinetis) processor along with the MQX Real Time Operating System.  Using the RTOS allowed software development to be compartmentalized, with different features and functions being developed separately and integrated into the whole package easily with a minimum of impact on other features.  This also allowed for the integration of multiple operation functions and modes while keeping a single Firmware image.

It should be noted that the programming language execution speed on the Jade Robot is the same as Arduino running 8-bit operations.  Where the Arduino slows down when 16bit and 32-bit values are processed, the Jade Robot’s execution speed remains constant through the use of 32 bit integers for all operations.

Our programming language is designed for teaching programming basics while providing sophisticated capabilities for the product.  The programming language is usually described as “C without pointers” – providing the same basic arithmetic functions as C but giving the user simple string operations, avoiding the need for more complex operations found in C, C++ and Java.  Other features of the programming language includes: alarge API set (current at 130) to allow the user to program the Jade Robot without having to interface directly to the registers of the Kinetis SOC and the ability to work with bitmaps, wav and Panel files, simplifying developing the user interface.

We have a rich console interface originally designed for programming, it was extended for remote operation (including controlling a camera and gripper).  This interface takes advantage of the duplex abilities of the Bluetooth link to provide continuous images from a camera along with passing data back and forth between the controlling PC.

We use all aspect light and object sensors along with a reflectance spectrometer on the bottom of the robot. The spectrometer uses six custom LEDs to shine specific wavelengths of light on the surface the Jade Robot is running over to provide it with the ability of detecting elements expected to be found on other planets. The IR sensors use standard IR LEDs and TV remote control receivers.  This approach allows the use of standard IR TV and DVD remote controls for controlling the robot and it’s user interface.

Wong: Did you use 3D printing when designing the Jade Robot?

Predko: All mechanical prototyping was done using a 3D printer.  This allowed for experimentation and debugging of the chassis (which is quite a complex molding) without the need for prototype molds or reworking the final product. We have used the 3D printer for prototyping the gripper design we have created for the Jade Robot.

Wong: What unexpected obstacles did you face in the product’s development?

Predko: For the most part, the Jade Robot’s product development went quite smoothly, but there were some surprising challenges along with way.

The biggest challenge we encountered was with the gray ABS light shields.  These shields direct visible light to photodiodes as well as IR light from the IR LEDs to the remote control receivers to provide the object detection/ranging capability.  It turned out that the light from the 940nm IR LEDs weren’t attenuated enough for the remote control receivers, which continually detected the IR signal except at the lowest power levels.  The solution was to paint the inside of the light shields with flat black paint.

We had a difficult time sourcing low-cost, high quality Bluetooth modules.  Our original plan was to put in a socket for a hobbyist “standard” product but we could not find a reliable unit.  The final decision was to solder in a commercial unit which is normally used in medical devices.

The biggest surprise we had was TV studio lights overwhelming the light and IR sensors on the Jade Robot.  If you look at our web site, you will see video of the robot working, but the footage taken of the spectrometer and other sensors was done with the studio lights turned off and lamps used to illuminate the Jade Robot on the stage.  This was also a problem at FTF with the bright theater lights in the “Technology Lab” exhibition hall.

Wong: Why did you choose on-shore manufacturing?

Predko: It will probably be surprising but the reason for choosing on-shore manufacturing was cost.  We have an excellent local PCB assembly house that also provides mechanical assembly, packaging and logistics.  Using standard parts distributors, their assembly costs are very competitive with Far East suppliers without the need for an engineer on site or product sitting in the middle of Pacific for weeks on end.  I like to joke that if we went with the Far East, a problem needing an engineer costs of $30,000 but with a local supplier the cost is 30 minutes in the car.

Wong: What are your plans for the future?

Predko: For the Jade Robot, we are looking at redesigning/remolding the light shields to block out the direct IR light from the LEDs as well as provide better shielding in very bright light environments.

We will likely be changing from standard DC motors to BLDC motors for driving the tracks.  To ensure consistent operation, DC motors need to be calibrated (which is one of the functions on the user interface).  BLDCs will avoid this requirement and are lower cost.

We will be finalizing the design of the design of the gripper/camera mount.  We were asked to provide a gripper for one of our customers and have found it to be something that is very exciting for other customers.  The original design used a commercially available Pan/Tilt unit but we found that it did not provide a way of mounting our camera so that the user could see what’s in front of the robot as well as what is about to be picked up.  By mounting the camera on the gripper elevation unit, the camera can view the horizon when the user is looking around and can look down at what is about to be picked up.

As a side note, the Curiosity rover on Mars has 14 cameras located throughout its body to provide these functions.  This is obviously impractical for a small rover such as the Jade Robot.

Wong: What has been the customer response to the Jade Robot?

Predko: Very positive. This is a product that demos very well and customers enjoy learning about its features and then exploring its capabilities.  For us, the most important result is what students tell us in the surveys we give them after an outreach workshop:

  • +22% to +26% Increased interest in STEM
  • +34% to +46% Increased knowledge and comfort level with robotics and programming
  • 9.5/10 “Excellent” rating