Somerville spot hosts robots and those who build them
The beast is immense, almost 18 feet in diameter. The beast is growing. But the beast cannot move. Not yet.
The creature in question is Stompy, a six-legged robot still under construction that’s a cross between a vehicle you might see in “Mad Max” and a massive cricket — albeit one made of steel, and powered by hydraulics and a forklift-size propane engine.
“It’s been gaining about 2,000 pounds a year,” says Joel Greenwood, one of the original members of Project Hexapod, the group building the critter. Now it’s about 5,000 pounds, maybe 6,000. Project Hexapod doesn’t know for sure.
Every Sunday afternoon for almost three years, Project Hexapod gathers at Somerville’s Artisan’s Asylum to work on Stompy, just one of many robotics projects taking shape there.
Today mechanical engineer and project manager Aaron Grossman, programmer Matt Dunlap, and Greenwood are “buttoning up the electronics.” Thus far, they’ve tested individual legs — which are 8 feet tall, with hip, knee, and ankle articulation — and test-walked Stompy only by using a computer model. The next step: all six legs working in concert — what Greenwood calls “baby steps” — in the real world.
Though none is quite as hulking or ambitious as Stompy, all the projects at the Asylum are driven as much by time, passion, and volunteer labor as they are by whirring motors and computer brains. A thriving maker-culture of electronics and robotics enthusiasts come to the Asylum to take classes, solve problems, and build ’bots and gizmos, rubbing their hands together with a kind of mad-scientist glee.
Take Stompy. The team raised $98,000 on Kickstarter in 2012. Almost three years later, the team is still toiling on what is, in essence, a gigantic DIY robotics project.
“The reason nobody builds bigger stuff like this is because they don’t think they can,” says Grossman. He hopes Stompy will inspire others that they too can “build a giant robot without all those millions of dollars in funding.”
Working on a much, much smaller scale is David Stokes.
“I want to produce things that do something I don’t expect. Other than explode,” he says, demonstrating his breadbox-size, tank-tread-propelled vehicle whose simple program and sensors help it drive around and not bump into things.
Stokes, a software developer by day, also instructs would-be robot makers in a class called Introduction to Arduino, the easy-to-learn open source computer that’s the smarts of many electronics projects. The fact that Arduino and other off-the-shelf technologies are cheap and accessible has helped open robotics to more DIYers than ever before.
“There’s just an endless field and always a new technology coming out,” says Michael Shonle, 50, of Cambridge, who has been tinkering with electronics since he was a teen. “Things I used to dream about are a $4 chip now instead of $4,000.”
At the Asylum, a nonprofit community craft studio at 10 Tyler St., newbies can take courses from “professional hacker” Jimmie Rodgers such as Analog Electronics: Building Synthesizers or Introduction to Robotics: Programming a Line-Following & Maze-Solving Robot. Rodgers also runs the Asylum’s Electronics and Robotics lab, a space full of electronic components, oscilloscopes, soldering irons, a band saw, and spools of wire.
In one corner, Paul Beltrani was milling a circuit board to create a custom driver for a home lighting project. Hunched at the table behind him, Leticia Rojas was busy making a robot. Her previous project was a device to automate Ikea window blinds.
This place, Rodgers adds, “allows people to play.” His free Circuit Hacking Night every Wednesday attracts anywhere from a handful to 30 hackers and engineers. Rodgers teaches newcomers the skills that every self-respecting circuit-nerd must know. First lesson: how to solder.
“I work on blinky things,” says Dustin Sysko. His “persistence of vision” device, which resembles a picture frame loaded with wires, cables, and lights, is powered by a Raspberry Pi single board computer. As the gizmo spins, a row of LED lights illuminates in a certain sequence; stare at it, and the brain perceives the flashing lights as an image that “will appear to be floating in midair,” he says. By building a 1-foot-high prototype at the Asylum, Sysko landed a contract to build one 2 meters tall to display graphics and video for a corporate installation.
Electronics and robotics tinkerers have used the Asylum to jump-start their own companies. One of the biggest success stories is Oakland, Calif.-based ArcBotics, founded by former Asylum member Joseph Schlesinger, who raised more than $350,000 on Kickstarter to produce two low-cost, open-source robots: The ’bots help neophyte designers “to learn control systems, to be able to play with a six-legged robot for less than a few thousand dollars,” Rodgers says.
Plenty of cross-pollination happens amid this warren of workspaces and heavy equipment for precision metal machining, electrical fabrication, welding, woodworking, bicycle building, and computer-aided design. “You see people working on projects you want to get involved in,” Rodgers says.
For a recent autonomous robot competition, teams built robots whose task was to push their competitors out of a ring, like in a sumo wrestling match. Rodgers helped design a ’bot dubbed “Iron Lady.” The Asylum cultivates an ethos helping out fellow members; when Rodgers wanted a fancy paint job, he found a bike builder to do it for him.
“I paid him a case of beer to paint the robot sparkling purple,” Rodgers says.
The mini-robot sumo competition and science fair returns to the Asylum April 19 in conjunction with the Cambridge Science Festival.
Stompy, by the way, is not invited to the bash. The ’bot is still many months away from being ready for primetime.
Back in the far reaches of the Asylum, the members of Team Hexapod stands around their overgrown baby. After two years of fabrication and programming, they’ve welded legs that “wave around,” Greenwood says. But never have the legs supported the weight of the ’bot, nor had anyone yet piloted Stompy with the joystick while seated in the cockpit. Expected top speed? Three miles an hour.
For now, “the short-term goal is to get the thing to stand,” Greenwood says. “It’s going to be really exciting, really soon.”