Tag Archives: CNC

The Great (Mini) Robot Race

Robotics – The Synthesis Project

The final project of the two year academy program requires that the students design, fabricate, program and test an autonomous robot. We have been doing this project since the inception of the program, but this year we have made some significant improvements on the project. In this post I will explain the project, and highlight those improvements.

This project is an extremely challenging task that requires successfully completing several “sub-projects”. We tell the students at the beginning of the school year, that this project is more difficult than any of the other projects – by a long shot!

“If you haven’t done everything, then you haven’t done a thing.” – Red Whittaker

We completely changed our robot competition parameters this year. In previous years we had the students design sumo wrestling battle bots. Although this was a fun project, we started to notice that some robots performed really well without really having to “think”. These robots generally lumbered around the ring, sometimes without even actually “seeing” their opponents. Through pure luck they just managed to push their lighter opponents out of the ring. We decided that we needed to change the project in order to force teams to be smarter and we also wanted to get away from a robot competition that seemed to focus on aggressive battle.

Ironically, I suppose, our robot project changes were inspired by the classic Nova film that documented the DARPA challenge known as the Great Robot Race. In this race, the autonomous vehicles raced through the Mohave dessert on a course that was revealed to the competitors only hours before the beginning of the race.

Bob set about building an impressive “maze” for the robots to navigate. The robots had to make their way through a series of 90 degree turns defined by a series of connecting corridors with vertical walls about 20 cm tall. The robots were then given two attempts to make it through the course as fast as they could.

The Brains and Braun

When we first started this project about twelve years ago, we first used a Java based board that we liked, but it was really expensive and we didn’t really need much of the hardware and software features that it offered. About eight years ago, the Arduino board was taking the Maker community by storm and we decided to hop on the Arduino bandwagon, and we have been very happy ever since. The simplicity, online community, the plethora of code examples and tutorials as well as the price have been key points in why we have decided to keep using the Arduino. This year we decided to incorporate DC motors from Sparkfun and Adafruit’s motor shield. The combination allowed the students more flexibility regarding drive train design, and also allowed for some interesting discussions around the advantages and disadvantages of servos vs dc motors. Our only complaint with the shield would be that it would be nice to have the headers pre soldered!

Designing The Circuitry


One of the major additions to the project was to require that students design and fabricate the circuitry for their robots. We did this by introducing two new skills to the project. Students had to learn how to use a printed circuit board (PCB) design software known as Fritzing, and then they had to learn how to fabricate their PCB boards using a CNC mill.

There are a number of amazing PCB design tools out there – and many are free! They all have their strengths and weaknesses. Here is what we found out as we did our research to find the right tool.

Autodesk’s Circuits is great because its web based, super easy to use and has an amazing feature where you can actually simulate the circuit. You can add a virtual voltmeter of ammeter to your virtual circuit and then with a push of a button, you can get virtual readings on the meters. I found this tool to be amazing for teaching circuitry and I allowed the students to use it as a “key” for their worksheets. It also has the ability to simulate an Arduino too! You can add an Arduino to your project, connect up LED’s, servos, etc. and actually see them light up or rotate as you change the code. It is a bit limited in that it doesn’t support most added libraries, but it is still amazing. We eventually decided not to use it for PCB design because it is unfortunately a bit clunky and doesn’t allow for much customization of the board.

Eagle is of course one of the most advanced and feature rich PCB design tools out there. It is also very complicated. IT of course offers the largest toolset, complete control of the design process and the free version is as close to a professional tool as one could hope for. The problem is that all these features come at a price – complexity. If we had an entire year to spend on this project, I might have decided to go with this tool, but we needed something that the students could learn quickly and weren’t going to get frustrated with…

Fritzing is a free, open source “beta” software that is very similar in look and feel to Autodesk’s Circuits – in fact I think Autodesk’s product must have been inspired by Fritzing? Although Fritzing lacks the amazing simulation tools that Autodesk Circuits has, it does offer a much better PCB design environment. The options that are available for editing the component foot prints, the PCB attributes, etc. make it really nice to work without making the tool too complex. This is the tool we decided to teach and use in class, and the students liked it.


Fabricating The Circuitry

Back in the fall we decided to invest in a small CNC mill produced by a local company out of San Francisco named Other Machine Co. This machine, called the OtherMill has been an amazing addition to the lab. With this machine, we have been able to teach the students how to fabricate their own PCB’s. The OtherMill is not just for PCB fabrication, in fact we have used it to mill small aluminum parts as well.


This micro CNC desktop mill is super easy to setup, really easy to use and plays really nicely with Fusion 360 – our 3D CAD and CAM software. I was incredibly surprised and pleased by how easy it is to learn the operating software – known as OtherPlan. The company has a great support website full of great tutorials, and we were able to teach all the students how to use the machine in just a few days.

The PCB files generated by Fritzing (we exported them as Gerber files) worked flawlessly with the OtherMill, and within a very short period of time, all the students had designed and fabricated single sided PCB boards for their robots.


The Final Results

As with any major changes to a project, there are lessons to be learned. We realized that the task was rather complicated and many of the students did not make it as far through the course as they had hoped. It was clear however that this competition proved more interesting from the perspective of getting students to see the importance of software design. Not only did we see very different software strategies, but the variance in hardware design was surprising. They really had to think about how the hardware and software had to work together, and they had to think about optimization. This was a clear advantage of this competition over the previous year’s competitions. Students spent far more time trying to figure out how they were going to shave time off their attempts, and how they were going to adjust software and hardware to better navigate the course. From our perspective, the changes to the project proved to be fantastic, and we are looking forward to improving on the project design for this year. Some of the things that we are going to do this year is introduce some different sensors for the students (like “feelers”) and also give them a price list and budget so that they have more hardware choices.

A Modernized Bridge Design Contest


Modernizing An Old Classic

We have just completed the second project in the Academy for the 2014-15 school year. It was a huge success! This project takes a classic physics project and “upgrades” it by incorporating modern engineering design technology and fabrication techniques.

We started with a great project that is now available online through Engineering Encounters. This was a project that was originally published by Stephen J. Ressler of the United States Military Academy. It is a rigorous approach to designing and building bridges from file folders:


Its a great project with an incredible set of resources, background information, and step by step instructions. Unlike less rigorous and involved bridge design projects (using toothpicks for example), this project has the students building compression members (beams) and tension members (cords) and gussets to better model real world designs and to give the students the opportunity to learn and make decisions about which members to use in different parts of their own designs.

The only issue that we had with this project is that it requires the rather tedious process of having students trace out the unfolded beam designs onto file folder material and then use scissors and  blades to cut out each beam and cord. But we have a laser cutter! There had to be a way to incorporate both 3D CAD design and our laser cutter in order to modernize this process. We also knew that Autodesk Inventor had some really amazing tools for analyzing design structures.

From Sheet Metal To Manila Folders

Autodesk Inventor has an amazing set of tools for designing sheet metal parts. Using these tools, an engineer can construct 3D models made of folded metal parts made from just about any thickness of metal stock. Once you have designed the folded metal part, Inventor will create a flat pattern design for you that you could then send to a CNC plasma cutter to cut from sheet metal stock. You would then fold the part up manually and you would have your folded part.

Inventor gives you the ability to custom define the thickness of your stock, and some of the parameters around how it can be bent. We defined our stock to be as thick as manila folder paper. The next step is a bit tricky, but with the help of a great video I came across from Rob Cohee, we were able to define custom folded paper beam stock that the students could then use to build out their frames. Once again, Inventor has an amazing set of tools for defining structural frames (called The Frame Generator) that can then be populated with any kind of structural beam. You can also define your own structural beams that can be used to populate your frame.

I have included a video below that we use with the students to help guide them through this process:

Using the frame generator tool in Inventor also allows the student to miter and trim the beam members, which allows the students to focus on design rather than getting lost in the time consuming process of calculating the cut angles. The following video shows you how this can be done:

Once the students had designed the bridges, it was time to prepare the flat patterns and have the laser cutter do the work of cutting them out.

Fold, Glue, Repeat. (Some Assembly Required)


The students prepare their flat pattern cut-outs for the laser cutter and then you let the laser “rip”! Its awesome to sit back and watch this machine cut. I never get sick of watching it! Having the students do this would take SO much longer, the cut parts would be less accurate, and as all CTE teachers know, one of the most dangerous tools in the shop is an Exacto blade.


Some might argue that the “manual” process of cutting all these beams out by hand is “good for the students”, but we feel that saving time here allows us to use that time in other areas, such as virtual testing.  Before the students get to build their design, we ask them to use Inventor’s frame analysis tools to help them analyze potential weaknesses in their designs. The following video shows just how amazing this tool is:

Once the students have done their analysis and cut their construction members, its time for folding and gluing, and folding, and gluing, and … At this point our project does not differ from the Engineering Encounters project. The students use a sheet of paper (actually two 11 x 17 sheets) with an elevation view (printed from Inventor as a CAD drawing) glued to a board as a guide for assembling the beams, cords and gussets:



This process goes relatively quickly as the students have done all the prep work to make sure that the pieces all fit together. Once again, this really demonstrates how modern technology can allow the students to focus their attention on design.

To Break Or Not To Break

Once the bridges are assembled, its time to test them out. The performance metrics for the contest are not actually based on the strongest bridge but rather a more realistic approach. We have attached a monetary value to each beam, gusset and cord. The bridges are then tested to a set value – the required load. The bridge that holds that load and is “manufactured” least amount of money is then given the highest marks.

Once the bridge has been tested at the required load, we then give the students the choice to see just how much the bridges can hold before catastrophic failure. Most students (encouraged by both peers and staff!) decide to take their bridge to the limit.

Its always a fun way to end the project!

Our New Full Spectrum Laser

Last week our new Full Spectrum Laser arrived at school. Thanks to the generous donation of a graduating senior’s parents, we were able to purchase the Full Spectrum Pro LF Series 36×24 model with a 90 W laser upgrade and active water chiller. This cutter replaces our eight year old laser that has had some serious problems rendering it essentially useless last year, which really affected one of our major projects.

This new laser arrived in a large wooden box that was a bit intimidating as we knew that we had to figure out how to get the laser out of the box and then into the room next door. We had to cut a hole in the adjoining wall, which actually wasn’t that difficult, but we will need to go back and fill that in!

We are really excited about the new device and look forward to using it on the first project of the year.

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