A Month in the Life of Pi

It's been a while since I posted an update and that's because I've had my head buried in rather boring details.  But it occurred to me that these are exactly the kind of details that normally remain hidden in the lab so why not reveal the ugly truth for a change?  After all, the life of a roboticist is not all glamor and talk shows!

First, Pi is getting ready to do some more ambitious exploring, both around the house and in a larger outdoor environment with paved walkways.  Pi is now 9.4 lbs without batteries, so to go these larger distances, I needed to build a larger base with additional batteries and a stronger set of drive gears.  The result is barely visible but here is a picture of the new setup:


It can be surprising how long such a simple upgrade can take to assemble.  I'd much rather buy an off-the-shelf setup but they tend to be very expensive.  At the high end, a robot base made by Segway costs over $10,000!  More commonly, hobby-level robot bases cost between $500 and $3,000 depending on the size of the motors, chassis and wheels. Another issue is battery power. I am currently using a combination of Lithium ion and NiMH battery packs as they are many times lighter than lead acid batteries.  However, they are also more expensive.

The final reason to enlarge Pi's base platform was to accommodate his onboard mini-computer as shown in the picture below:


As long as Pi is within a couple hundred feet of my main computer, his "brain" can reside on my PC and his sensors and motors can operate over a wireless link.  However, once he begins to venture further away, he'll need to keep his head on his shoulders and carry his own computer on board.

On the software side of things, I am rewriting all of Pi's programming code in a language called Python.  This has been a great learning experience but also very time consuming.  Why on earth would I do this?  Until now, I have used Microsoft's C# programming language which is similar to C++ (very popular in academia) but much more forgiving on a "high level" programmer like myself.  (In my case, "high level programmer" means lazy and impatient.)  C# is very easy on my brain and makes for fast development of new code.  However, it runs on Windows computers only and is not widely used in other robotics projects. Python is a relative new language, but it is open source, runs on all three platforms (Windows, Linux and MacOS X) and is really, really easy to program with.  In fact, it only took me about a week to get the hang of it, probably because I already program extensively in PHP for my day job and PHP shares some conceptual similarities with Python.

One of Python's strengths is that it supports both "declarative" and "functional" programming styles.  Declarative programming is what most of us think of as programming.  For example, suppose we have a list of fruits and we want to print out only those with "berry" in their name. In a declarative language like C# we might do something like this:

List<string> basket;
string[] fruits = {"banana", "orange", "peach", "blueberry", "apple", "raspberry",
"apricot", "strawberry"};
basket = new List<string>(fruits); foreach (string fruit in fruits) { if { Console.WriteLine(fruit); } }

In Python, we can do the same thing using just two lines of code:

fruits = ["banana", "orange", "peach", "blueberry", "apple", "raspberry",
"apricot", "strawberry"]
print [x for x in fruits if string.find(x, "berry") > -1]

This example also illustrates that Python is a "dynamically typed" language like PHP, Perl, Lisp, Javascript and Ruby.  This means that our code samples can be relatively compact since we don't have to write out all the type declarations for each variable and function as we did in the C# example.

Perhaps most importantly for Pi Robot, Python now sports many open source libraries that will come in very handy as we go along.  For example, there is NetworkX for doing network graphs (think family trees and the traveling salesman problem), PyBrain for coding artificial neural networks and OpenCV for computer vision.  What's more, Python will allow us to use a relatively new open source robot programming framework called ROS ("Robot Operating System") from Willow Garage which is a very well funded start-up company located just down the street from me and with strong roots at Stanford University.

In closing, I will leave you with a little video that illustrates the use of Python to control Pi's arms.  This was a test case for me to get up to speed on the new language as it involves multi-threading, list comprehensions, and a low-level Python interface to the Dynamixel servos.  The code simply picks a random position for each of Pi's 11 servos (don't forget his torso rotation!), then tells them all to move to their new positions in a synchronous fashion so that they all reach their target angle at the same time.  Then a new posture is chosen at random and the process repeats.