Mini Robotic Table

What’s better than a table with wheels? A table that you can drive around! This tutorial will teach you how to build your very own Mini Robotic Table, a project that was conceived and designed by one of my students (she was 10 when we started).

We built this table because, in the words of my student:

“I wanted to build something and I thought of a table and I thought of robotics and I smooshed them together. I like woodworking and I like robotics and I wanted to do something with the both of them.

We started w/ a full size table but that took a lot of time and money so we decided to make a tiny version, which is a prototype to the big one.”

We sized this mini table for American Girl Doll height (an American Girl doll is 18″ tall so we made the table to be 9″ tall), but you can adjust and modify depending on your needs. The most important thing to keep in mind is table weight, as a larger table requires larger motors and more battery power.

Difficulty level: Intermediate

Estimated build time: a few days to a week

Cost: ~ $75 – $100

Adult supervision required (lots of sharp and powerful tools involved)

 

Supplies

Materials

  • Wood
    • Table top: 8″ x 16″ (width x length)
    • Legs: 1.5″ x 1.5″ x 8″ (width x length x height)
    • Table Shelf: 8″ x 14″
  • Brackets (8)
  • Screws (28)
    • For brackets: 1.25″ screws
  • Axle, metal
    • We used the metal rod from an old (aka broken) french press
  • 4xAA Battery case and (4) AA batteries
  • Continuous rotation servos (2)
  • Small screws to hold wheels onto servo (2)
  • Radio controller and receiver
  • Servo Wheels (2)
  • Caster Wheels (3)
    • we used the same wheels as for the servo motors, but attached them to an axle instead of a servo.

Tools

  • Hot glue dispenser and glue sticks
  • Power Drill
  • Drill Bits
  • Screwdriver Bits
  • Saw
    • Or get pieces cut at your local hardware store
  • Sandpaper
  • Glue
  • Electrical Tape or heat shrink tube
  • Safety glasses
  • Dust mask
  • Scissors
  • Measuring tape
  • Level
  • Clamps
  • Optional:
    • Duct Tape
    • Velcro
    • Zip Ties

Tips, Tricks, & Extra Information (Please read before building!)

Before you build anything, read the full project instructions first!

Helpful info to have before you start this project:

1. Be prepared for drying time

2. How to use power tools and know safety rules.

Safety rules: put hair up, eye protection, roll up sleeves, no loose clothes, no jewelry that could get in the way, always have a second person in the room especially an adult if you are younger, dust mask.

3. Be prepared w/ the materials and tools you’ll need.

4. Document in a notebook as you work for reference later.

5. Find a radio controller that comes with a receiver. It is easier to put together the electronics if you get a controller and receiver together because it will take a lot more time to figure out which receiver will work with a particular controller, so get a controller that comes w/ the right receiver.

RC controllers can be very expensive, and other ones are super cheap and don’t work well. Read the entire description for the controller and receiver that you are interested in. The way we figured it out was by finding three options: one that was expensive, one that was in the middle, and one that was cheaper. We used our budget to help figure out the best option, and ended up selecting the option that was in the middle.

Build the Table!

Gather your woodworking tools, wood pieces, and brackets (see Supplies section for sizes). Remember to measure two or three times before drilling, gluing, and/or cutting 🙂

Step 1: Determine placement of legs and brackets and mark all bracket holes with a pencil. 

We used 2 brackets for each leg and 4 screws for each bracket, except for two brackets that overlap in between the legs.

It is helpful to use a tape measure to get placement as accurate as possible.

Step 2: Attach legs to the tabletop with brackets and screws.

A. Drill small holes in the tabletop and table legs to avoid cracking the wood. (See photo)

B. Attach two brackets to each leg.

C. Attach legs with brackets to table.

Step 3: Add the table shelf!

We cut ours to fit between the legs and attached with wood glue.

Tip: Add an object under the shelf while it is drying so the shelf does not move.

 

Step 4: Sand the table where needed.

Step 5: Measure the height of the wheels and include in the total table height.

Connect the Electronics!

1. Set up the radio controller and receiver.

Bind the receiver to the controller as shown in the instructions that come with the controller that you chose.

2. Connect the battery case to the radio receiver.

Connect the battery pack to the pins that say “B/VCC” (black wire goes on the outside of the receiver).

For this table size and weight, four AA batteries are enough to power the receiver and the two continuous servo motors. If you build a bigger table, you’ll need larger motors and more battery power.

3. Do a quick test to figure out which receiver input plugs work best for driving your table with the controller.

For the test, do the following:

If you are using the same radio controller and receiver, we recommend using receiver channels 2 and 3.

A. Connect one motor to the first channel on the receiver. Align the servo wires with the receiver channel as shown in the photo above.Then move the controls on the controller, observe when and how the motor moves, and record your findings.

B. Move the motor to the next receiver channel and repeat Step 2A. Do for all channels on the receiver.

C. Decide which channels work best to drive your robotic table!

Build the Drive Train and Attach Wheels!

The drive train is how we connect the motor and wheels to the table.

Step 1: Attach the wheels to the servos.

We attached the wheels with screws, but we had to find screws that fit and held the wheels on tight. We also had to drill out a bit of the wheel where the hole is so the screws could fit through. You may need to do a bit of testing to find the proper screws.

Step 2: Figure out placement of the servos and wheels. Use tape to hold in place while you test.

Use a level to make sure that when you attach the wheels the table is not all wonky. Measure how tall the servo with wheels are going to be before you attach them and before you drill into the wood. If you do not measure them, the table might be too tall and disproportionate.

Step 3: Attach the front castor* wheels to the table using the metal axle.

A. Measure and mark the location of the axle so that the castor wheels are even with the back wheels.

B. Drill holes into the front table legs and push the axle through, adding wheels as you go.

C. Secure the castor wheels in place by adding hot glue or grommets** on either side of the wheels, leaving about a 1/2″ (1cm) gap so that the wheels can rotate freely.

*The front wheels are called “castor” wheels because they are not connected to the motor.

** A grommet is circular rubber stopper, sort of like a rubber band, that prevents the wheels from sliding off.

Step 4: Secure the servo motors with epoxy or another strong adhesive.

Note: We recommend doing this step after testing the whole table as the servo motors will be stuck once the epoxy dries.

Test, Drive, & Decorate!

Power up the radio receiver and controller and test out your robo table! It might take a few practice trials to get a feel for driving the table.

Once you’re sure the table is working, add some hot glue (or epoxy) to hold wires in place and prevent the electronics from getting disconnected.

Decorate your table with markers, paint, stickers, fabric… whatever your creativity compels you to do!

If you want to see optional upgrades, check the next slide. Otherwise….

You’re done! Enjoy driving your robo table, maybe to give your pets a lil’ exercise or to deliver you or a friend food when you are watching a movie. Share your ideas and creations with us, we’d love to see!

Optional Upgrades

Battery holder!

We made a battery holder using wood, felt, ribbon, and wood glue. We measured the battery box and cut small pieces of wood to make a box without a top. We used the felt to cushion the battery box and keep it in place, and the ribbon to more easily pull the battery box out.

Wire Tubing

We purchased some wood-colored cord cover and cut it to fit the sides of the table legs to conceal the servo wires.

Brakes!

Design your own braking system, or stay tuned for separate tutorial on how we tackle this!

IoT Industrial Scale!

finalscale2-v2

 

What does a baby elephant weigh?* How much impact force does a jump have?? How can you tell if a rain barrel is full without looking inside??? Answer all these questions and more by building your very own Internet of Things (“IoT”) industrial scale using the SparkFun OpenScale board!

This project is intended for folks with a lil’ bit of background using Arduino or other microcontrollers. But, whether this is your first or 137th project, check out the links in the Suggested Reading section below (and throughout the tutorial) or leave a comment if you have any questions!

Read time: ~ 15 min.

Build time: Approx. 2 – 3 hours

*To weigh a baby elephant, you might need to be a zookeeper or otherwise have an elephant friend.. but you could always weigh Fido and/or kitty!

For all you visual learners, check out a video of the project below:

 

Materials!


To follow along and build your own scale, all the parts used are listed below.

Electronics

To make the system wireless:

All these parts can be found in the wish list here.

Scale and Casing

  • Terminal blocks (5)
  • Three (3) M3 screws per load cell (total of 12)
  • One (1) project case (to protect the electronics)
  • One (1) base board, and one (1) top board (for the scale platform)
    • My base board was ~ 16″ x 16″ and my top board was ~ 12″ x 14″.
    • Both boards should be sturdy and not flex or dent.
  • Wood slats to frame the sides of the top board to hold it in place.
  • Four (4) feet for base

 

But wait! There’s some background reading..


First of all, how do we measure weight??
Strain gauges!

Also called load sensors, strain gauges measure electrical resistance changes in response (and proportional) to, well, strain! Strain is how much an object deforms under an applied force, or pressure (force per area). Check out this super awesome tutorial for more info on how strain gauges work.

Usually what you’ll find in a bathroom scale is a load cell, which combines four strain gauges in a wheatstone bridge. This project uses four disc compression load cells rated at 200 kg.

Here’s some additional background material to learn more about the components and tools used in this project:

  1. Serial Terminal Basics
  2. OpenScale Applications and Hookup Guide
  3. Getting Started with Load Cells
  4. Photon Development Guide

As usual, don’t forget to read the Datasheet for the Load Cells and any other components you with to use in your project.

Build the Electronics! Pt. 1


industrialscale-schematicv2

Connect the Load Cells!

Load cells have four signal wires:

  • Red: Excitation+ (E+) or VCC
  • Black: Excitation- (E-) or ground
  • White: Output+ (O+), Signal+ (S+)+ or Amplifier+ (A+)
  • Green (or blue): Output- (O-), Signal- (S-), or Amplifier (A-)

They also have bare (or yellow) grounding wires to block outside (electromagnetic) noise.

Connect all five load cell wires in parallel to the OpenScale terminal blocks with the corresponding labels. You might need to switch the green and white load cell wires – check this by adding weight to the load cells. If the weight is decreasing, switch the wire orientation.

The OpenScale terminal blocks are a bit cramped with four load cells, so I used the terminal blocks pictured above. If you have a case for the electronics, remember to put the connectors INSIDE the case before connecting them to the load cells (not speaking from experience or anything..).

 

Build the Electronics! Pt. 2


Connect the OpenScale to a data logger!

In addition to printing, reading, and gathering data from the Arduino serial monitor (see “Reading Load Cells!”), we can add a Photon microcontroller to connect to WiFi and upload the measurements to the Internet!

Connect the OpenScale “Serial Out” ground (“GND”) port to the Photon GND, and the OpenScale “TX” port to the Photon “RX” port. If your data logger needs power, connect the OpenScale 5V port to the data logger Vin port. That’s it!

 

Build the Base & Case!


1. Plan out, measure, and mark location of load cells.

Load cells should be at least 1″ in from the top platform board sides and installed equidistant and on the same plane (aka same height) with each other.

Each load cell needs three M3 type screws, which requires fairly precise measurements. I opted for a quick & easy solution: make a plastic stencil that marks the load cell outline and the location of the screw holes. The plastic I used was cut from a discarded strawberry container (yay, free and upcycled!).

2. Drill holes for load cell screws and attach load cells to base board.

3. Attach feet to base.

4. Secure the scale platform.

Place platform on top of the load cells. Attach wood slats to sides of base with wood glue and/or screws to secure the platform in place laterally, but not vertically. AKA, be sure that there is no resistance to the board pushing downward.

Add brackets on opposite sides for a more secure hold.

5. Place electronics into project box container (or tupperware) and drill holes for cables.

6. Admire your handiwork!

 

Connect the OpenScale!


One of the awesome features of the OpenScale program is that it outputs data to the Arduino IDE serial monitor (9600bps). All we need to do is plug in our OpenScale via USB, select the appropriate board (Arduino Uno) and port, and you can read the load cell data directly from the Arduino Serial Monitor. More info on how to do this here.

Enter ‘x’ to bring up the OpenScale settings menu. Entering ‘x’ again leaves the menu and the OpenScale will start printing data!

arduinoserialmonitor-fullmenu2_labeled

We also need to remove the serial trigger from the OpenScale. Do this by going to the menu, inputting ’t’, and turning the serial trigger to OFF.

You can change various other settings on the OpenScale using the serial monitor, including units (lbs/kg), print rate, decimal places, etc. You can adjust, or peruse, the entire OpenScale program by downloading it from GitHub!

Note: If you are connected to another microcontroller, the OpenScale does not send data when in the menu mode.

 

Tare & Calibrate the OpenScale


Tare!

We’ll need to tare the OpenScale each time it is powered up. To tare the scale, remove all weights from the scale and open the OpenScale settings menu. Input ‘1’ in the OpenScale menu, wait for it to finish taring, then exit the menu and check that the output is close to zero (+/- 5 lbs). If the reading is still off, taring again should fix the problem – if not, check that the load cell grounding wires are properly connected to ground.

Calibrate!

We also need to calibrate the OpenScale to get accurate measurements. It’s also recommended to re-calibrate the system every few weeks (or days) to avoid creep (slow change in reading over time).

To calibrate the scale:

  1. Remove all weights (except the platform).
  2. Open the OpenScale menu and select ‘2’ to open the calibration setting.
  3. Place a (known) weight on the scale and adjust the calibration factor using ‘+’ and ‘-’ until the scale reads out the calibration weight within a reasonable margin in error.*

Also, the load cell output varies with temperature (‘cause heat causes expansion), so we need to keep the system at a constant temperature (or use different calibration factors at different temperatures.

*My experimental uncertainty was about +/- 5 lbs.

 

Program the Photon!


Write a program for the Photon that will read in the serial output data from the OpenScale and push it to the IoT platform of your choice. Or you can use/modify my code 🙂

Here’s the GitHub repository for the IoT scale.

This program reads data from the OpenScale and pushes it to ThingSpeak (also prints it to the Photon serial monitor). ThingSpeak is super easy (and free!) to set up, the only downside is that it only allows data to be posted every 15s.

What you need to do to make the program work for your setup:

programcode-whattochange_labeled

  1. Include your WiFi SSID (network name) and your WiFi password in lines 53 & 54, and lines 69 & 70.
  2. Set up a ThingSpeak channel!  thingspeak-channelsetup
    1. Name the channel and write a brief description.
    2. Include at least one field name. If you want to push more data, like temperature or a timestamp, include those corresponding fields.
    3. Save the channel!
  3. Copy the “Channel ID” number and the “Write API Key” and input them into lines 84 & 85.thingspeak-apikeys_labeled

Read through the comments in the program code for more information on how the program works.

 

Test & Refine!


Prototype complete! Have your favorite human or animal stand (or awkwardly lay..) on the scale to check that it works as expected.

Check thoroughly to see if there is anything that needs to be fixed, secured, and/or improved. During my build process I noticed that a lot of the wood I was using to test would get dented by the load cells, resulting in inaccurate readings.

 

Lessons Learned & Next Steps!


My initial goal for this IoT scale was to gather data on the forces due to jumping (specifically in parkour). Alas, the OpenScale is intended for constant loads and the fastest print rate is 505 ms, which is too slow to get accurate readings on impact force.

Fortunately, we can still use the scale to gather general data and use this design as a foundation for future versions. Some quick and well-timed preliminary testing by a professional jumper (~165 lbs) resulted in the readings plotted below:

data-jumptest3

It shows a single jump, where the landing corresponds to the highest reading (~ 230 lbs), and the point just before that (~ 135 lbs) is when his feet were in the air. (The weight decrease + little blip after the the peak is when he was stepping off the scale.)

In addition to an updated program to print data faster, I’ll need waaay more data and a consistent, controlled procedure to determine any kind of reasonable relationship between impact force, jump height, and weight. Also, the top platform was a bit dented after these tests, so I’ll need a sturdier wood, or metal, scale platform.

Overall, this was a cool proof-of-concept and an informative preliminary test! Plus, there are tons of other practical uses for this simple Internet-connected scale!

 

Education Extension & Beyond!


Beyond being a great hands-on project for computer science, engineering, and electronics courses, this is a handy experimentation tool for physics classrooms! Use it to illustrate the difference between weight and mass, demonstrate how acceleration relates to force, or use the on-board temperature sensor to estimate the mathematical relationship between thermal expansion and load cell output.

Other Applications:

  • Use the system to measure the weight of a rain barrel and notify you when it is full.
  • Make a bathroom scale that keeps track of your weight (or your animal’s weight).
  • Monitor the weight of your Halloween candy to be sure that no one is sneaking some from under your nose.

Happy Building!