Sparky the Roomba Robot

Tony's Computer Projects

Sparky's Brains and Eye
Sparky on the Move
Sparky's Controller (rear view)
I'd been living in a carpeted apartment for over 2 years and did not own a vacuum, nor had I ever vacuumed the place. A seemingly unrelated fact is that I had previously been involved in some academic robotics projects and liked tinkering with hardware.
Where these two things come together is the Roomba vacuum (manufactured by iRobot), which is both a platform for domestic work and robotics projects. I bought one (Discovery SE model) and I named him Sparky (after a suggestion from a co-worker) because you absolutely need to start early with the anthropomorphic stuff when working with robots. The Roomba provided actuators (motors and wheels) and sensors (infrared and bump sensors) and a not so clever, but heuristically effective vacuuming algorithm in its firmware. It also also had all the interfaces (hardware and software) for connecting your own controller and writing your own software algorithms that used the actuators and sensors. By the time I bought one, there was a well established knowledge based on all the ways one could augment the Roomba.
Sparky in 2011
(with remnant velcro)
A major goal I had as I embarked down the path of experimenting with the Roomba was to not permanently change it in any way. It had to be designed so that at any moment, all additional hardware could be removed, and it could function for its manufactured purpose of vacuuming. There was a whole lot of false starts, lots of electronics and tool purchases, some fried hardware here and there, plus lots of experimentation and revisions along the way. However, this main goal was most successfully fulfilled, and it serves as a vacuum to this day (circa Aug. 2011) which is four years after I started and a long way from when I last used it as a robotic hacking platform. The only visible indication of its past life as an experimental platform is a patch of velcro on the top where the "brain" would be mounted.
Final Roomba Setup (unmounted)
The end result was an on-board "brain" capable of implementing control algorithms, an on-board camera and servos for taking pictures/video and manipulating the camera's pan-tilt head. It also had a wireless Ethernet connection which could send and receive data. This additional hardware required auxiliary power in the form of an on-board battery pack of 8 re-chargeable AA batteries. It was capable of being fully autonomous for as long as the batteries lasted. For testing, it could also be tethered to a AC/DC wall wort power supply and it could take commands through either a wired or wireless network interface.
Most all the time I spent was in building the hardware platform, trying different pieces and getting everything to work together so as to have a fully autonomous robot. Besides some simple proof of concept algorithms that used the main on-board sensors and actuators, nothing more sophisticated ever made its way into Sparky's brain. I was in the process of making it recognize and follow people using facial recognition. I got the facial recognition software so that the pan-tilt camera head would follow your face as you moved. It was not terribly robust to tilting of your head, but when it worked, it was a little bit creepy to see this reacting to your movements in a "seeing eye" type behavior. I was leveraging some off-the-shelf algorithms from a math library, and try as I did many, many ways, I could not get this software to run directly on Sparky's on-board hardware. All the algorithm development was done on my laptop, and I needed to cross-compile it for the hardware that was Sparky's brain. Each time I loaded it into the brain, it would give errors and die and I never figured out a solution for this. Here's where the project stalled out:
      Program received signal SIGSEGV, Segmentation fault.
      0x00510cb8 in CvType::~CvType ()
      (gdb) bt
      #0  0x00510cb8 in CvType::~CvType ()
      #1  0x00411010 in __do_global_dtors_aux ()
      #2  0x0055e3e4 in _fini ()
With this obstacle, other things in life eventually got in the way. The project was shelved and that is as far as I ever got. All the hardware is still in tact, and in theory it should still work as far as I got years ago, but it just sits in a box now. So Sparky is now just a simple domestic robot, without the higher-level functions needed to become self-aware and turn on its master, which of course is what happens with robots in the limit.
Project Details
I am writing this 4 years after I did this project and though I have a slew of notes about what I did, it would take me a lot of time to reconstruct the many, many things that went on in detail. So what follows it just an outline of the highlights. If you really care about all the gorey details (you probably don't), here are my detailed notes: I started this project in late August of 2007 in my apartment in Boulder shortly after having spent 6 months living in an apartment in NYC and working way too hard for the last 2.5 years.
"Hacking Roomba" Book Cover
I bought a book on Hacking the Roomba for reference. Most of the information was on-line, but the book was a good crutch to have and helped find things more easily. It was a great way to get an introduction to the Roomba.
Module for Upgrading Roomba Firmware
First thing I found is that my Roomba model (Discovery SE) was almost hackable. This version had all the hardware and design of the next generation Roombas which were made easier to hack, but the firmware was a couple months before they they fully worked everything out. The nice part of this was that it only required you to re-flash the firmware, and they had a nice little premade module for doing this. The bad part was that they charged you about $29 for this new firmware.
The Roomba has a DIN 7-pin connector which is annoyingly almost the same as a PS/2 connector (previously common in computer keyboards and mice). The difference of 1 pin meant you have to lok harder to find the connector. My first task was to get familiar with getting information from the Roomba and issuing commands to the Roomba. This would be done directly from my laptop to the Roomba to ensure I could actually control the thing. For simplicity, I used some premade hardware from SparkFun Electronics, who were conveniently located in Boulder where I was.
WiFi to Serial WiPort
SparkFun Electronics make a USB to Roomba cable (called the "RooStick") and a wireless Bluetooth to Roomba transmitter and receiver (called "RooTooth"). I started with the wired connection to eliminate a variable for errors. The Bluetooth version was more of a headache than it was worth.
These devices became obsolete when I found a product that interfaced a regular TCP/IP network to a serial device. Despite the funky cable, the Roomba's control protocol was a simple, standard RS-232. Better yet, there was a wired and wireless version. So I could put the WiFi-to-serial board on Sparky, connect the serial outputs to the cable going into sparky, and I could wirelessly control the Roomba from my laptop: brilliant. Note that this is not the final solution, since the end-goal was to make control happen on-board, but for testing and debugging purposes, being able to control the roomba from the laptop was invaluable.
I wound up doing a bunch of soldering and making a special board for the WiFi-to-Serial board. I did not wan to solder that board directly to the cable going into the Roomba, because this was just a tempoary setup. So I made a board that would allow me flexibility to plug in and out various ways to connect to the Roomba.
With laptop-to-roomba control, I downloaded a modified a bunch of libraries and programs for the Roomba that would allow basic control and information. This could be done through the command line or through some simple PHP interfaces I made.
Inner Guts of Linksys WRTSL54GS
Linksys WRTSL54GS Router
The "brains" of Sparky would be a Linksys WRTSL54GS wireless router, because this was effectively a mini-computer, complete with decent amount of RAM, flashable RAM, USB port, GNU/Linux and was fully supported for adding your own custom firmware. I bought two of these since I knoew I would be doing hardware modifications and wanted to have a backup for testing and in case something went wrong.
First step here was to reflash the firmware with a full (but compact) version of GNU/Linux. The Linksys WRT54G class of routers is a heavily hacked platform and there are tons and tons of resources out there on this, including prebuilt firmware images. There was actually too much outr there as I had to choose between two different development branches: "kamikaze" or "whiterussian". There was much back-and-forth here, especially as I got deeper into this and required more customizations. For the this initial step, just learning how to take apre-built image, flash the firmware, then log-on and configure it was the main goal. Trickiest part at the start was to get all the needed usb modules for the USB camera that would be used as Sparky's "eyes".
First View from Sparky's Camera
Sparky's "Eye"
Once the camera was recognized by the router, I copied a bunch of utility programs to the router that would allow it to dump images. This was all proof of concept of getting the router and camera to work and being bale to get images off the router.
Because the camera was USB and because I planned to add extra memory via a USB memory stick, I bought a mini USB hub that I was going to use on-board Sparky. The router came with only one USB port (exposed). I ran into issues where the camera just would not work if hooked up to the hub (and it was a powered hub). The solution was to add another USB port to the rouiter. The board inside the router supported two USB ports, but it just had nothing connected to the second set of pins. I bought a USB connector and soldered it on to give me two USB ports on the router.
Cover of Sparky 02 (Linksys WRTSL54GS)
Debricking via JTAG Jumpers
At this point I was building custom firmware, trying to get everything I needed and nothing I did not need. This required geting the source, comnfiguring the builds, compiling and re-flashing the firmware. There were many cycles of this as I refined the image, but at one iteration, the flashing did not take. I had "bricked" the router (as they say). I did not think there was anything significant between this version and the other version, so attributed the problem to a hiccup of some sort, so I unwisely thought I'd just use the backup router. Now I had two bricked routers.
There was a whole slew of voodoo techniques for de-bricking these routers. I tried them all, with the last ditch and most primordial one being to make a special cable with specific resistors on each wire, and soldered into the special "JTAG" jumpers on the board. With special cable attached to the parallel port of the laptop and rigged to the router, you run some magic incantation (software) and hope for the best. No luck. I had no way of validating that I had even constructured the cable the right way, so this was a real shot in the dark. I gave up the fight and bought a third router.
Camera, Servos and Wireless Module
SSC-32 Servo Controller Board
Having a fixed camera on Sparky would be quite limiting. It would require turing the robot to point the camera and it would not be able to lopok up or down. The solution was to use a pan-tilt head using acouple of servo motors. I found this very nice little servo controller board (SSC-32) that was simple to setup and use and very functional. This also was controlled via a serial interface, and since I already had all the serial interface stuff worked out, fit perfectly.
We now had the following hardware we needed to support:
  • WiFi-to-Serial module : testing only from laptop
  • Network-to-serial module : how router will talk serial devices
  • Servo controller board : for pan-tilt head and status LEDs
  • Battery pack : for limited stand-alone power
  • Ac/DC tranformer wall-wort : for unlimited, but tethered power
Power Distribution Board
Power Distribution Board
(rev. 1)
A further complication was that there were voltage mismatches among a number of these, so we needed some electronics to step up or down the voltage as needed.
I wound up making a power (and serial line) distribution board that would allow battery or wall-wort to plug in, convert to the right voltages, and distribute the power and serial control lines to female connectors mounted on the board. I could then neatly plug in and out the compoents as needed. The first version of the power distribution board used a brain-dead (but cheap) power step-down component that got super hot and consumed gobs of power. I had to splurge about $20 extra for a smarter component.
Servo and Camera Testing
(cardboard enclosures)
At this point, it was late October of 2007 and I got the third router delivered. I went through all the setup needed for that. Despite what you see in some of the pictures up to this point, I had no clean solution for mounting all this extra hardware. For testing, I used a few cardboard boxes and tape to hold it together. I was testing the untethered use of the camera, pan-tilt head and streaming video from the camera now.
Ethernet to RS-232 Module
Rear View of Sparky's Brain
At some point, I had actually added a serial port to the Linksys router. The pins where there on the board, but they were not connected. I soldered them up wqith wires running to to a 10-pin connector, and cut-away the casing to support it (see at right). What I cannot remember is why I did this. I had a solution where the router could control the serial devices threough a regular network. Myabe I added it before I figured that out, or maybe there were plans to eventually have a more direct serial control over the Roomba or pan-tilt servos?
Power Distribution Module and Servo Controller
Side View of Sparky's Brain
I now had most of the hardware and interfacing issues worked out, so it was now time to think about a neater solution to putting this hardware on Sparky. I oportunistically used the enclosure from one of the bricked routers, which housed the power distribution and servos controller boards nicely (after a bit of dremel tool work on it). I mounted the camera (and servos) to this, and stacked it on top of the non-gutted router for a relatively nice look.
Make Magazine's Roomba
I thought my enclosures were not so bad and that it was a pretty neat looking system (though too many cables showed). However, I very, very recently (July 2011) opened up my new issue of Make magazine and saw that they had an entire cover article on doing exactly what I did. Their final product is pictured at right, which is certainly a much nicer packaging effort. You can see this in their Volume 27 issue.
Their project is eerily similar to mine, down to the exact same camera, battery enclosure and use of the WRTSL54GS router. It was the appearance of this issue that actually prompted me to sit down and write up what I did for my project pages. Note that they do not have a pan-tilt head for the camera, which I think is way cooler to have than some fancy clear plastic mounting plates.
One big limitation of the Roomba as a robotics platform is the power/weight issue. With full compliment of bateries, router and misc. boiards, this adds a non-trivial amount of weight to the roomba. Besides your having to make sure it is balanced, it puts more downward force than it was designed for. With a full charge on the roomba battery and the auxiliary battery pack, Sparky could operate for a little less than an hour, but this was with a minor load. More batteries would be more weight, anf there is a definitel limit on the weight.
With all the hardware built, it was time to do something more interesting with the Sparky, which meant it was time to get down to developing algorithms and writing software. I had the idea of making Sparky my personal sentry robot, but before arming him with any sort of lethal capabilities, I figured I better be able to make him understand how to interact with people.
First task was to set up a development environment where I could develop and test code on my laptop, with it remotely controlling the robot, then cross-compiling it to load into Sparky brasin (the router). I did the obligatory helloworld.c program, then a simple hellosparky.c program that did some random sequence of wheel and camera movements in response to the bump sensors. Lacking a video camera at the time, there's no nice visual stuff to provide to show you from this phase of the project.
A prerequisite to more interesting control, we to be able to get data off the camera and process the pixels so that I could write programs that reacted to what was happening on the camera. I had to adapt the source code from the tools that were used to dump images from the camera, and wrote a proof of concept program that would just insert a green rectangle into the image. This completed the camera functions I needd:: read image from camera, iterate over pixels, modify image, and save to permenant storage.
The next level of sophistication I tried was to do facial recognition and have the pan-tilt heads move to track faces. I found a facial recognition software called "opencv" which I spent a fair amount of time paring down, and also tinkered with some facial recognition library from CMU. On the laptop, with the camera and pan-tilt head hooked up directly, I was able to get this face tracking working. A little eerie in a way, though the facial recognition library was not very robust to roatation of your head. Still, the main proof of concept of having the camera servos moving in regard to the live image the camera was seeing was accomplished.
Trying to compile this for the router and run it on Sparky resulted in a segmentation fault. I then tried all sorts of variations of libraries, complile-time options, removing unneeded dependencies, but each time continued ot get the segfault. Nothing worked, and that was where the project ended (unless I decide to pick it up again at some point,m which is unlikely.)
Sparky: Fully Operational