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The Dark Side Challenge

A DIY Arduino robot project for teaching kids how to combine machine autonomy with human decision points. And programming.

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The goal of the challenge is to build a robot that can autonomously navigate through a terrain where radio contact is sporadic or impossible – just as if it were on the dark side of the Moon or somewhere even farther away.

While achieving that goal, the challengers are learning to program and debug embedded devices and sensors, to imagine, reason and persevere, understand how to properly balance machine intelligence with human interaction. The youngest ones are even learning the alphabet – both in capital and small letters!

The repository on Gitlab contains a progression from the simplest Arduino program (Blink), to more advanced topics in C++, Java and Javascript and can even lead to understanding differential equations at an early age.

It only uses standard (and cheap) hardware. The rover can easily be set up allowing for schools (or other organizations) around the world to connect and visit each other virtually.

The system consists of an Arduino Uno R3-based rover communicating via WiFi using an ESP8266.

The current version features an ultrasound distance sensor and a camera.

The rover polls its commands from a server which, if it has a public IP, can be accessed from anywhere. Commands are sent to the server via a web page and a REST interface.

All code is available on Gitlab.

The system was built to be as simple and accessible as possible and with the purpose of teaching programming and computational thinking.

  • UnisynX and the Twisterbolts - Hyperrobust junctures

    nicolas02/04/2021 at 21:28 0 comments

    At The Franco-Danish School we are designing and building robots (in particular Dark Side Rovers) with the kids.

    Our old way of assembling the robots was based on pin connectors, inspired by the Lego Technic Pin (part. no. 3673). However, when these are printed in PLA as we do, the strength, precision and elasticity are far from those of the injection-molded versions of Lego. It sort of works, but the pins are too difficult for the kids to insert into the holes of the plates on their own and break after a while. Good enough to get started, but not a feasible way forward to our ultimate goal of building robots that can build robots.

    For quite a while we thought of a better way to assemble the Dark Side Rovers. We considered that robots are good at rotational movements, since they are generally based on motors and gears. They are also good at executing multiple tasks at exactly the same time...

    And there came the idea of UnisynX and the Twisterbolts!

    The Twisterbolts are plain old  bolts, except that they are left-hand threaded at one end and right-hand threaded at the other. UnisynX is a construction that is being held together by the bolts.
    Twisterbolts in a UnisynX construction
    Twisterbolts (in green) fastening a UnisynX construction

    The key concept is that none of the bolts can be rotated on their own, all of them have to be rotated at once. The more bolts you have, the less likely each bolt is to "random walk" away from its intended state and the likelihood off-hand would seem to be dropping exponentially as the number of bolts used in the construction increases.

    In our 3D-printed test constructions, there is enough slack for the twisterbolts to be rotated by hand, a few degrees at the time, one after the other in a round-robin fashion. For metallic high-precision versions, that wouldn't be feasible and would require either electronically synchronized power screwdrivers or a planet gear as shown below:

    The rovers now start looking like this:

    The invention is in the public domain and is completely free for use.

  • Self-balancing version

    nicolas01/26/2021 at 19:32 0 comments

    A self-balancing version of the rover, controlled over UDP with a joystick (for now).

    Very popular with the kids!

  • The Flying Hacker Lab

    nicolas09/29/2019 at 11:44 0 comments

    Since the last post, a number of things have happened. We ended up winning the Ultimate Arduino Challenge 2019 \o/ and won a spot at the Maker Faire Rome \o/ .

    So in a couple of weeks, we're off to Italy. We'll be visiting the Arduino development and manufacturing centers in Turin, visit the da Vinci Museum in Florence and finally spend four days in Rome for the MFR19.

    That will also be the baptism of fire of our Flying Hacker Lab - a transportable maker space aimed at engaging people - and particularly educators - in hacking.

    The fully deployed lab consists of six stations:

     * a soldering workshop for soldering all kinds of stuff, including jewelry

     * a robot assembly corner

     * a 3D printing workshop

     * a programming corner

     * a robot Dark Side Challenge test track

     * a hyggelig story-telling and drawing corner

    Many thanks to our sponsors for supporting the trip and the Flying Hacker Lab:

    Arduino

    Mouser

    MicroChip

    Ellehammerfonden

    Villumfonden

    Teknologipagten

    Supplyframe

    Olimex

    Soldered Jewelry
    Soldered Jewelry

    Test track testing
    Test track testing

    Unboxing the Hacker Lab
    Unboxing the Hacker Lab

  • The Dark Side Badge

    nicolas07/03/2019 at 21:38 0 comments

    To celebrate that we made it to the finals of the Ultimate Arduino Challenge, we designed a Finalist badge that glows in the dark...

    ... the idea being to make it an actual Dark Side device for remote sensing/possibly acting.

    Discovering the wonders of the glue pistol!

    Wearing the badge in a debate on girls in STEM at the annual "Folkemøde" on the island of Bornholm.

  • The Dark Side Probe

    nicolas06/13/2019 at 21:58 0 comments

    The Dark Side Probe is about using the Dark Side Challenge software stack to collect information in a remote area, with a particular attention to battery life & power consumption

    The current version consists of an Arduino Pro Mini managing a SIM7000E GSM+GPS module.

    We have simply added the SIM7000 functionality by reusing (refactoring) most of the existing ESP8266 code.

    What we are still missing is:

     * to find out how to make the SIM7000 enter sleep mode

     * reduce the time it takes to get a GSM connection (currently takes >10 min). The target is a few seconds, as we would like to achieve a year-long battery life.

     * get GPS information from the SIM7000, possibly using Assisted GPS

  • Meanwhile, somewhere in Iceland...

    nicolas05/22/2019 at 18:22 0 comments

    ... a group of children are evaluating how fun and educational their session with Dark Side Rover Icebot just was: left hand shows how fun (on a scale from 0-5), right hand shows how educational. Straight 10/10 !

    Makeresses in the making!

    Accomplished Dark Side Missions included "Under the bridge" and "Find the sandal"


  • First Rover Shipped. Made with Mom.

    nicolas05/16/2019 at 16:53 0 comments

    First rover (baptized Coquine) shipped to Norway, sponsored by the Ellehammer foundation.

    Made by a 6-year old and her mother.

    Now it is stuck in customs :( Should have labeled the package clearly. Learning as we go.


    We decided to assemble it before shipping it, just to be sure that it works. Lucky we did that!

  • Visit of a Legend

    nicolas05/13/2019 at 13:20 0 comments

  • Rover now available on Tindie!

    nicolas04/30/2019 at 19:21 0 comments
  • MVP!

    nicolas04/26/2019 at 23:25 0 comments

    Today we achieved a major milestone: the Minimum Viable Product!


    Champagne at the Friday bar

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