Ramblin' Dan's Workshop

The Sanctum of Fine Art and Invention

Remote Conning System

This is a remote control (R/C) system I am developing for a computer based control systems of a model boat. Rather than conventional old school methods, this uses a high speed TWO WAY data link between the model boat and the operator. This opens a whole new way monitoring the remote controlled object and an unlimited number of special features. Read On.

The Concept

boatpixThis is not a new idea except for me. I have already seen evidence that it has been done before. In fact it has been done many times before, but for different intentions. In my searches I have seen a tiny foam slab version from Italy and a full human size version from Austria and even a version made from soda bottles.

Oh! What is it? I am contemplating the design and construction of a hobby type robotic controlled model boat. Hence the name RoboBoat for robotic boat. That word not original but hey, it's a small world. It's not a copyright of which I am aware and because it is published here and used elsewhere, I claim it is in the public domain. I will use it in the generic sense, for all boats of this type.

My idea is not the typical Radio Controlled model. They use timed variable width pulse signals from a transmitter directly controlling linear servos connected to a receiver. This old method has been state of the art radio control for many decades. This is not authentic real world ship control.

I am considering an on board computer controlled model boat with a wireless network connection to the model boat captain on shore. The connection will be a two way high speed data exchange. I am imagining things that can be done that will take maybe years discuss and explore. (The reason for this Blog.) The sweet thing is the technology to do this is off the shelf.

I see motor and rudder control of course, but how about including speed, course, motor temperature visible on the monitor of the captain on shore? With on board GPS and compass, a lot of position information is available for semi-autonomous operation and to send back to the control station on shore.

This will be a form of model boating for the nerds and the computer programmers. Maybe a cooperative effort between the robot builders and the scale watercraft builders.

I think I may be both.

In any case, I want to stir up some interest in discussions about the concept and perhaps form an idea exchange for others who would like to tackle a project like this. The first step I see is to choose a communication system. Maybe at first, one way control like R/C but then open this oyster up for all the wild ideas a two way data network can fulfill.

I have found considerable information about robotic boats and even submarines. I posted a URL for a website (The AUVSIfoundation) in one of my other blogs, Ramblin’Dan. The AUVSIfoundation has many other URL’s which point to itself such as RoboBoat.org and RoboSub.org pointing to their areas in the same website. This foundation promotes an annual competition for building and operating autonomous vehicles for both surface and underwater navigation as well as many other categories.

The AUVSIfoundation is supporting the development of fully autonomous operation. That means there is no human intervention once the vehicle is launched. It is totally computer directed using whatever sensors and outputs within its control. It is a very demanding system to design and keep operational. The point of this all is the competition and the resulting education and not to make design and control easy.

I love that robotic concept of being fully autonomous.

My goal is far less demanding. I would like to keep the human interface although I don’t rule out autonomous operation as an option. My thought is to not eliminate with robotics the desire that exists for typical direct human model control. That interface system works just fine.

The correct term for what I envision is a semi-autonomous aquatic robot with some programmed decision making of its own.The human interface will be just another input/output to the control system. What makes it clearly a qualified robot is that it should respond to its own sensors such as maintaining a course through compass or GPS sense or perhaps find its way “home” or to a goal when directed.

All the other bits I am considering are enhancements to the modeling experience. Data feedback to the operator is I think a new experience for model builders. Since I am thinking of boats that actually look like boats (not robots) I believe scale model animatronics is a good description of my vision.

I have already had folks comment about commercial robotic application for small semi-autonomous water craft. It’s far from the scale model animatronics application but the control strategy would be much the same. SONAR pulses and GPS location with accurate grid mapping could be used to look for underwater objects in cold or cloudy water in lakes and ponds before divers are sent down. Sunken boats, cars, deep holes, etc might be determined depending on the quality of the sonar.

I think this may (probably) already exist in an expensive commercial product. But the challenge is to do it low budget. It is all pipe dreams right now but it does expand the possibilities where this concept may extend for the personal experimenter. Whatever floats your boat, so to speak?

What I would like to do at this point is to see what others have to say and may be doing in the less competitive development of robotic water craft. I will dig into this on my own if I have to. I’ll likely be doing my own thing anyway. It just seems to be what I do… but it would be nice to have others around for sharing experience. To that goal, I am ah… “launching” this new blog I am calling RoboBoatBlog.net (Now Offline)

I will open the Blog publishing privileges to any serious hobbyist who is actually pursuing (any stage of) non competitive semi-autonomous aquatic robot research and development. Just tell me you have something to contribute. Interested readers are invited to make comments or ask questions.

My First Step

August, 2011, I put my money where my mouth or actually where my writing says I am. I placed an order with Parallax (about $200) for their XBee 802.15.4 Starter Kit. Follow the link and you will find out more about this kit than I need to write here.

I figure I will be "dead in the water" if I don't have the local area network (LAN) concept fully functional. It is this radio link system that has strongly driven me to push forward with the entire concept. This kit has the low powered 1 mW transceiver modules (three of them) and that power level is suitable for testing. My plan is to use the higher power pro modules (63 mW) when I build the first operational on the water system.

I already own a BASIC STAMP micro-controller I have toyed with for years. So I have done the micro programming and know what I am facing. This is what has me excited! However, I will definitely be learning and using the more powerful Propeller microprocessor system for this project. I currently believe the Propeller will be sufficient computer power and importantly, low battery powered for the task.

But hey! That's way down the road so is subject to revision. Stay tuned.

Why Parallax?

I have not chosen this controls manufacturer on a whim. There is a very huge variety of control microprocessor systems available, suitable for this project. In have no idea if this selection is technically the best product for the job. The truth is I don’t have the time or the money to test everything out there to make that kind of ultimate selection. I don’t think I need to.

I am not buying processors in lots of 1000 and will probably never. That means I need a low volume low cost proven product from a demonstrated successful manufacturer with lots of support for small volume users like myself. Here I am buying direct from the manufacture, not some high volume distributor who may consider me a pesky gnat because of my questions.

I have good experience with one of the Parallax products (the Basic Stamp) so first-hand I have knowledge their peripheral customer support systems and business philosophy. The company president (check his first name) Chip Gracey is a customer level, visual manager. He developed his product knowledge much the same as I did. That is with “hands on” pioneering from the very early years (late 70’s early 80’s) of the micro processor hobby development until the present. His start was back when Timex Sinclair’s and Apple II’s were still fresh off the tree.

Because of their comparably (with say Intel) low volume, their product has to be good to stay and grow in the business. Their market is the enthusiast both professional and hobbyist who want a small low power device with system boards and open I/O that can be totally customized to whatever need. Many times that can develop into OEM large orders, at least at the chip level.

That is all I need to make my initial selection. Check ‘em out for yourself!

Umm, sorry if this reads like a commercial. Just call it an endorsement. :)

Up Front, A Terminal Idea

Yesterday I got to thinking about what I need to do for the user computer interface on the shore side of the data link. A common terminal program and the debugger terminal (for the Parallax software) are all that is needed right now for the link communication testing.

For actual operation something more user friendly will be required for the “front end”. I am in the buildings controls business so this is not a great revelation. A control system is only as good as it looks and can be understood by the user.

I built serial terminal programs many years ago for the first MAC computer. I designed a text interface between the computer and the amateur radio teletype I was operating in my ham station (W5EHS). It was a two way text communications system. The software worked so well I had a fellow ham selling the programs for me. I had a lot of fun constantly adding features so I couldn’t freeze the design long enough to sell the program myself. Later on I made a few more changes and it worked very well as a packet radio front end.

So I am fairly certain I can do it again. Yesterday I loaded MS Visual Basic 2010 Express (a part of Visual Studio) and after a couple of hours punched out a fully operational (and professional looking) photo fetch and display program. Yes, it was a tutorial but it helped me realize my plan wasn’t out of reach. It looks like if I wanted to, doing the same in Visual C  language would be no harder with the Visual Studio tools available. The Express versions of this software are free, so a no brainer to try.

I have considered a Linux based front end but most people don’t run around with Linux on their laptops. I have to work within something I can share with the most people. I think someday a cell phone could be the front end.

The shore side front end software may therefore be easier to build than the boat software. Total control reaction will have to be calculated in the boat software if there is any chance of autonomous operation. Some feedback into the shore display could be raw data and let the shore computer crunch it to display format. The shore side computer only has to talk and listen to the boat computer. A lazy job.

All these variable scenarios are a part of the decisions to be made. I am actually looking forward to the challenge. Having eight processors available in the boat computer has my mind spinning. I only have four in my home PC…

The Fun Begins

I received the package from Parallax last night. It contains the XBee 802.15.4 Starter Kit. Sure is a small package of parts for the money. Ha, good things (hopefully) come in small packages.

xbee-1 xbee-2 xbee-3

This will provide the radio link between the boat and shore. Looks like a lot of options so I will be working on this communications link for some time.

I have a Basic Stamp computer to hook up to one of the transceivers and I will purchase a Propeller demo system very soon for the second transceiver. The third transceiver will be used for the  master  or base computer.

The Stamp computer will not be used in the actual RBB project but it will be a part of the learning process. Also a Stamp or another Propeller could become a part of the system later on.

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