A hundred years ago, the state-of-the-art of automotive technology was being pushed forward as quickly by shade-tree mechanics as it was by formal industrial R&D.; To paraphrase John Steinbeck: "Two generations of Americans knew more about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars." The current situation in robotics could be seen in a similar light - open source hardware and software provide very similar tools and capabilities to hobbyists and robotics start-up company alike. To ease entry into the field, Freescale Semiconductors has just introduced FSLBOT, which provides the basic hardware and software for development of a walking, sensor-laden robot starting at only US$200.

The compelling challenge of designing and/or programming a humanoid robot is often offset by the complexity of such robots. They often have dozens of servo controlled degrees of freedom combined with an array of modern sensors and high-level autonomous computing facilities to allow the robot to make some degree of sense out of its environment.

For example, Honda's newly updated ASIMO robot has 57 degrees of freedom (each DOF having servo-control and position sensing), is 130 cm (4'3") tall, weighs 48 kg (106 lbs), can walk, run (9 km/h or 6.7 mph), hop, skip, jump, kick soccer balls properly, act as a host who fetches guests a drink, can speak and interpret sign language, and performs such tasks using only autonomous computing facilities. Of course, the handmade ASIMO costs about a million US dollars per unit, so a high level of sophistication is expected.

The simpler (25 DOF) and smaller (58cm or 23"), but still impressive NAO robot from Aldebaran Robotics is a popular US$15K humanoid robot for schools and universities interested in training and development programs. Still a bit pricey for beginning a personal robotic development program, however.

Annotated view of the Freescale FSLBOT at rest (Photo: Freescale Semiconductors)

Freescale has developed and is now marketing FSLBOT, a 23cm (9") tall walking robot with four DOF, three-axis accelerometer and magnetometer, onboard 32-bit RISC processor, electronics to control four additional servos and sample and development software, all for $199.

Annotated view of the Freescale FSLBOT caught while taking a step (Photo: Freescale Semiconductors)

FSLBOT is based on the Freescale Tower System, which is a modular mechatronics development platform that enables rapid prototyping through reconfigurable hardware, combined with a control/communications software system that allows widespread transferability of code and functionality between different combinations of Tower modules.

Annotated view of the Freescale TWR-MECH Mechatronics Board (Photo: Freescale Semiconductors)

FSLBOT is mainly based on the Tower Mechatronics board, which integrates an MCF52259 32-bit microcontroller with 64K RAM and 512K flash. The board includes electronics to control eight R/C servos, and these have been used by several designers to supply the FSLBOT with rudimentary arms. The Tower Mechatronics board carries the real-time programs which control the details of various motions and actions, while an external computer instructs the board as to the upper-level instructions that guide the overall motion of the FSLBOT.

StickOS BASIC is a programming language and an integrated development environment (IDE) for the TWR-MECH board. It’s specifically designed to allow those with little or no programming experience to get up and running quickly. It also provides complex functionality such as vision filters and face tracking. More advanced users can take programming to new levels of functionality with the use of CodeWarrior, which is a C/C++ IDE for the creation of software that runs on a wide range of embedded systems.

An autonomous FSLBOT using an attached chumby one Internet media controller - which includes a 454 MHz ARM processor together with 64 MB of RAM (Photo: Freescale/Eric Gregori)

Another subgroup of designers is working on autonomous versions of the FSLBOT. A popular option is to replace the FSLBOT head and face with a chumby one internet media controller.

On the left, an autonomous FSLBOT with an i.MX53 Quick Start board, and on the right a standard remotely controlled FSLBOT (Photo: Freescale/Eric Gregori)

Another is to add an Freescale i.MX53 Quick Start board. This includes a 1 GHz ARM processor with 1GB of DDR3 RAM and Linux in firmware, which makes available a great deal of open-source Linux-based robotics software.

At present there are more than 50 mechatronic modules available in Freescale's Tower System family, as well as the hardware and information to enable design and construction of special-purpose modules. Given the depth and flexibility of the Tower System, I fully expect to see complex autonomous anthropomorphic robots grow from projects beginning with the humble FSLBOT.

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