Unofficial Guide to LEGO MINDSTORMS Robots

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The LEGO® MINDSTORMS™ Robotics Invention System (RIS) is a wildly popular kit for building mobile robots. This book contains all the information you need to get the most out of your kit. Based on hands-on robot projects, the book includes descriptions of advanced mechanical techniques, programming with third-party software, building your own sensors, working with more than one kit, and sources of extra parts. This book goes far beyond what you'll find in the official documentation to enable you to build and ...

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The LEGO® MINDSTORMS™ Robotics Invention System (RIS) is a wildly popular kit for building mobile robots. This book contains all the information you need to get the most out of your kit. Based on hands-on robot projects, the book includes descriptions of advanced mechanical techniques, programming with third-party software, building your own sensors, working with more than one kit, and sources of extra parts. This book goes far beyond what you'll find in the official documentation to enable you to build and program whatever you can imagine.The center of the RIS kit is a small programmable robot brain called the RCX. This book explains the software architecture of the RCX as well as the various options that are available for programming it.The book includes:

  • Hands-on robot projects, with complete building instructions and programs. Different aspects of these projects are used to explore fundmental issues of mobile robot design.
  • A chapter on NQC, a popular programming environment for RIS. You'll learn how NQC fits into the RIS software architecture, as well as how to write programs using NQC's C-like syntax. Includes copious examples.
  • A chapter on legOS, an alternate operating system for the RCX. legOS provides very low-level access to the resources of the RCX, enabling complex robot programming. This chapter describes legOS's structure and includes useful sample programs.
  • A chapter on pbForth, another powerful option for RCX robot programming. The chapter includes sample programs in Forth.
  • A chapter about building your own sensors. Making your own sensors is economical and educational. This chapter describes how to build several different sensors that will work with the RIS kit.
The book includes numerous illustrations and code examples. Many URLs are listed to serve as an introduction to the thriving online MINDSTORMS™ community.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781565926929
  • Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/1/1999
  • Series: Unofficial Guides Series
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 262
  • Product dimensions: 6.97 (w) x 9.11 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Knudsen is an author at O'Reilly & Associates. His books include The Unofficial Guide to Lego Mindstorms Robots, Java 2D Graphics, and Java Cryptography. He is the Courseware Writer for

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1:

This is a book about creating robots with the LEGO@ MINDSTORMS" Robotic Invention System (RIS) If you've always dreamed of building and programming your own robots, this is your big chance-the RIS set makes it easy to get started. There are a lot of enthusiastic RIS owners out there already: other people have built robots that pick up empty soda cans; robots that seek light; robots that play tag; walking robots with two, four, six, or even eight legs; robots that can be controlled over the Internet; working computer peripherals like a plotter and an optical scanner; and robots that simulate a Tsunami and a tornado,* You can build anything you can imagine. RIS gives you a chance to breathe life into LEGO creations, making them move and respond to their surroundings. You can create a tank that scurries into the dark, or a monorail car that traverses your living room on a string. You can create robots that hop, walk, and drive around with a mind of their own.

Furthermore, by owning the RIS set, you become part of a worldwide community of enthusiasts. The RIS set is a common ground for building robots; if you build something cool, other people will be able to build it too. Similarly, you can build and modify other people's creations. LEGO bricks, therefore, are a kind of lingua franca for mechanical design.

You have many options when it comes to building and programming robots. LEGO bricks, of course, can be assembled in many different ways. Part of this book is about building robots; it includes five projects that you can build yourself. But you also have lots of options for programming your robot. Aside from the "official" software that comes with RIS, the inventive MINDSTORMS community has produced a bevy of other options. The most important ones are described in this book.

This chapter describes the basic concepts of robotics and creates a backdrop for the MINDSTORMS product line. I'll also cover different approaches to programming mobile robotics. Finally, I'll describe the RIS set itself. If you're in a hurry to start building something, skip ahead to Chapter 2, Hank, the Bumper Tank.

What Is a Robot?

A robot is a machine whose behavior can be programmed. This is a broad definition -it includes things like VCRs and microwave, ovens, a far cry from the talking androids you might be thinking of. Robots have five fundamental components:

1. A brain controls the robot's actions and responds to sensory input. Usually the brain is a computer of some kind.

2. A robot's body is simply the physical chassis that holds the other pieces of the robot together.

3. Actuators allow the robot to move. These are usually motors, although there are many other possibilities, such as hydraulic pistons.

4. Sensors give a robot information about its environment. A touch sensor, for example, can tell a robot that it has come in contact with something else.

The last component is not always obvious:

5. A power source supplies the juice needed to run the brain, actuators, and sensors.

For example, think about a robot that spraypaints cars in a factory. Its brain is probably a garden-variety desktop computer. The body is a big arm with a paint sprayer at the end. The actuators are motors or pneumatic pistons that move the arm around. Position and rotation sensors are used so the robot knows where the sprayer is and what direction it's pointing. The whole thing is plugged into a wall socket for -power.

Mobile Robots

Mobile robots present special challenges. These robots can move their bodies around from place to place. Why is this capability difficult? Many more things can go wrong if your robot is free to move around rather than being bolted to one place. Being mobile multiplies the number of situations your robot needs to be able to handle.

Mobile robots actually come in two varieties: tethered and autonomous. A tethered robot "cheats" by dumping its power supply and brain overboard, possibly relying on a desktop computer and a wall outlet. Control signals and power are run through a bundle of wires (the tether) to the robot, which is free to move around, at least as far as the tether will allow.

Autonomous mobile robots are even more challenging. These robots need to bring everything along with them, including a power supply and a brain. The power supply is typically an array of batteries, which adds a lot of weight to the robot. The brain is also constrained because it has to fit on the robot, not weigh a ton, and be frugal about sucking power out of the batteries.

This Is Tough Stuff

The field of autonomous mobile robotics is extremely challenging. Have you ever seen an autonomous mobile robot, besides in the movies? Probably not. If you have been lucky enough to see such a robot, was it doing something useful? Probably not. if the robot was supposed to do something useful, did it work? Probably not.

If it wasn't so hard to make autonomous mobile robots, the world would be full of them. Wouldn't it be nice to have a robot do your laundry or drive you to the airport? But the cold truth is that it's unbelievably difficult to make a robot that can do even the simplest of tasks. It all comes down to one fact: it's very bard to deal with the real world.

To understand this, think about how you might try to make a robot to vacuum your living room. This is a pretty simple task to describe: basically you just want to move the vacuum back and forth over the rug until the whole thing is clean. Suppose you modify your vacuum cleaner so that it can move around on its own, by adding more motors and a small computer brain. just consider the staggering complexity:

  • How does the robot keep from getting tangled up in its own power cord, assuming it's a tethered robot? If it's not tethered, you need to find a power supply that will run the robot for long enough to clean at least one room.
  • How does the robot know where it's been already? How does the robot know where it is? How does it know where to go next?
  • How does the robot navigate around obstacles like table legs and furniture?
  • How does the robot recognize things it shouldn't vacuum, like money, or toys, or your cats?
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Table of Contents


1. Welcome to MINDSTORMS
     What Is a Robot?
     Mobile Robots
     What Is MINDSTORMS?
     What Now?
     Online Resources

2. Hank, the Bumper Tank
     About the Building Instructions
     Building Instructions
     A Simple Program
     Bumpers and Feelers
     Online Resources

3. Trusty, a Line Follower
     Building Instructions
     Some Tricky Programming
     The Light Sensor
     Idler Wheels
     Using Two Light Sensors
     Online Resources

4. Not Quite C
     A Quick Start
     RCX Software Architecture
     NQC Overview
     Trusty Revisited
     Online Resources

5. Minerva, a Robot with an Arm
     Building Instructions
     Directional Transmission
     Mechanical Design
     Two Sensors, One Input
     Where Am I?
     Online Resources

6. pbFORTH
     Replacement Firmware
     pbFORTH Overview
     About Forth
     pbFORTH Words
     An Expensive Thermometer
     Minerva Revisited
     Online Resources

7. A Remote Control for Minerva
     Two Heads Are Better Than One
     The Allure of Telerobotics
     Building Instructions
     Programming the Remote Control
     Programming Minerva
     Online Resources

8. Using Spirit.ocx with Visual Basic
     You May Already Have Visual Basic
     About Spirit.ocx
     Calling Spirit.ocx Functions
     Immediate and Delayed Gratif ication
     Programs, Tasks, and Subroutines
     Retrieving the Datalog
     Online Resources

9. RoboTag, a Game for Two Robots
     Building Instructions
     Subsumption Architecture
     Online Resources

10. legOS
     About legOS
     Development Tools
     Hello, legOS
     Function Reference
     New Brains for Hank
     Development Tips
     Online Resources

11. Make Your Own Sensors
     Passive Sensors
     Powered Sensors
     Touch Multiplexer
     Other Neat Ideas
     What About Actuators?
     Online Resources

A. Finding Parts and Programming Environments

B. A pbFORTH Downloader

C. Future Directions

actuators, 2, 8
      building, 227
AI (Artificial Intelligence), robotics and, 4
ambient light, 49
angular velocity, 33
arbitration, 184
architecture, subsumption, 179-185, 204
      web site, 188
      grabber, 105, 110-112, 156
      mechanical, 105
      swing, 107
Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics and, 4
autonomous robots, 3

balancing robots, 112
batteries, retrieving current charge, 168
beams, 15
bevel gears, 32
binutils package, 191
      web site, 214
BotCode web site, 172, 234
Bot-Kit web site, 171
bouncing, 153
BrainStorm web site, 172, 233
BrickCommand, 160, 233
      web site, 172
building projects (see projects)
bumpers, 31
bushings, 15-16
buttons, legOS functions for, 198

cars, 29-30
conductor plate, attaching sensors with, 218
constants, 166
copper tubing, attaching sensors with, 217
Crickets web site, 13
cross-compiling, 57, 191
      web sites, 192, 215
Cygwin package, 191
      web site, 214

datalog, 71
      retrieving, 168-171
debouncing, 153
delayed functions, 163
differential, 30
differential drives, 27
differential light sensor, 226
directional transmission, 107
      web site, 115
            NQC, 70
            pbFORTH, 128
      functions (legOS), 194-195
      differential, 27
      synchro, 30
            web site, 38
      tri-star, 30, 37
drivetrains, 112
Droid Developer Kit, 10

egcs compiler, 191
      web site, 214
E&L Group (Epistemology and Learning Group) web site, 13
emulegOS web site, 214
Epistemology and Learning Group (E&L Group) web site, 13
Eureka web site, 13
expansion sets, 10
Exploration Mars, 10
Extreme Creatures, 10

feelers (see touch sensors)
firmdl, 144
firmware, 56, 116
      downloader, 192-193
            web sites, 118, 215
Forth programming language, 121-126
FTP sites, 37
      examples in this book, xiii
      legOS, 194-204
      Spirit.ocx, 163

gear reduction, 34
geared motors, 34
gearing down, 34
gears, 15-16, 31-35
      worm, 32, 108
grabber arms, 156
      web sites, 115

Hall effect sensor, 223-224
Hank, the Bumper Tank, 27-38
      instructions for building, 16-25
      programming, 26-27, 204-211
Hitachi web site, 81

idler wheels, 28, 50
If function (Spirit.ocx), 166-167
immediate functions, 163
infra-red data link, 7
      legOS, 198-199
inlines, 75
      input values, retrieving, 165-166
      legOS, 196-197
      web site, 227
instructions for building
      Hank, the Bumper Tank, 16-25
      Minerva, 83-102
      remote control, 147-150
      RoboTag, 174-179
      thermometer, 137-138
      Trusty, a Line Follower, 40-44
internal gearing, 34
IR (infra-red) link, 7
            NQC, 70
            pbFORTH, 119

Java for RCX, 240
JINI devices, robots as, 240

Killough platform web sites, 38

Large Turntable piece, 30
LEGO Group web site, 11
LEGO Network Protocol web site, 157
LEGO Shop at Home, 35
LEGO Users Group Network (LUGNET) web site, 11, 158
legOS, 117, 189-194, 233
      debugging, 212
      development cycle, 211
      emulator, web site for, 214
      functions, 194-204
      static variables, 212
      web sites, 213
light sensors, 48-50, 113
      adding a second, 50
      building, 220-221
      differential, 226
      legOS, 197
      programming, 51
            in NQC, 79-80
LightSeeker.c program, 205-211
line following, 39
Linux, 58, 191, 233
locomotion, 27-35
LUGNET (LEGO Users Group Network) web site, 11, 158

machine screws, attaching sensors with, 217
Macintosh platform, 38, 58, 233
magnetic compasses, 114
memory, requesting (legOS), 202
micro motors, 34
MindControl web site, 171, 234
      history of, xi
      web sites, 11
      instructions for building, 83-102
      programming, 103-107
            pbFORTH, 138-142
            remote control, 154-157
MIT Programmable Brick web site, 13
mobile robots, 2-6
      web sites, 37
      wheels, 27-35
motors, 34-35
      servo, 227
      web sites, 38
mounting sensors, 217-218
multitasking, 36-37
      in legOS, 199-203
      NQC, 72-74
music, 68-70

navigation, 114
      web site, 115
Not Quite C (NQC), 58-67, 233
      downloading, 54
      web sites, 81, 143

online resources (see FTP sites; web sites)
operators for If and While functions, 167
outputs, controlling in legOS, 196

parts, ordering, 232
      (see also web sites)
passive sensors, 219-221
pbFORTH (Programmable Brick FORTH), 117-121, 233
      debugging, 142-143
      program downloader, 235-239
      web sites, 143
      words, 126-137
PBTurnOff function (Spirit.ocx), 168
Perl, 191
      web site, 214
Pitsco LEGO DACTA web sites, 38
plates, 15
Poll function (Spirit.ocx), 165-166
power management, pbFORTH, 134
powered sensors, 221-224
program downloader, 9
Programmable Brick FORTH (see pbFORTH)
      debugging, 142-143
      Hank, the Bumper Tank, 26-27, 204-211
      legOS (see legOS)
      light sensors, 51
      Minerva, 103-107
            pbFORTH, 138-142
            remote control, 154-157
      multitasking, 36-37, 72-74
            cooperative multitasking, 135-137
            in legOS, 199-203
      NQC (see NQC)
      pbFORTH (see pbFORTH)
      random numbers, 64
      remote control, 151-154
      RoboTag, 180-188
      Trusty, a Line Follower, 44-47, 77-80
      Hank, the Bumper Tank, 16-38, 204-211
      Minerva, 82-115
projects (continued)
      remote control, 147-154
      RoboTag, 174-188
      Trusty, a Line Follower, 39-51
pulleys, 109

random numbers, 64
      legOS, 203
RCX Code, limitations of, 53
RCX Command Center (RcxCC), 58
      web site, 81
RCX (Robotic Command Explorer), 6-9, 145-146
      programming environment, 9
      software architecture, 55-57
      turning off, 168
      web sites, 12, 214
remote control
      instructions for building, 147-150
      programming, 151-154
RIS (Robotics Invention System), 6-7
      history of, xi
      software, 9
      version 1.5, 240
      web sites, 12
Robolab software, 38
Robosports, 10
RoboTag, 173-188
      instructions for building, 174-179
      programming, 180-188
      web site, 188
Robotic Command Explorer (see RCX)
      Artificial Intelligence (AI) and, 4
      behaviors, 180
      small approach, 5
      web sites, 11
Robotics Discovery Set, 10
Robotics Invention System (see RIS)
robots, 2-6
      balancing, 112
rotation sensors, 114
      legOS, 197

SaveDatalog function (RCX), 168
sensor watchers, 36
sensors, 2, 216
      legOS, 197
      mounting, 217-218
      passive, 219-221
      powered, 221-224
      web site, 52
      (see also light sensors; touch sensors)
servo motors, 227
shafts, 15
Shape Memory Alloy (SMA) wire, 227
signal splitter, 222
SMA (Shape Memory Alloy) wire, 227
Smalltalk web site, 171
solenoids, 227
      legOS, 203
      pbFORTH, 134
      playing, 68-70
      sensors, 226
            building, web site, 228
Spirit.ocx, 56, 159-171
      web sites, 171
standard motors, 34
subroutines, 74, 164
subsumption architecture, 179-185, 204
      web site, 188
symbolic constants, 166
synchro drives, 30
      web site, 38

tasks, 164-165
      behaviors, 180
telerobotics, 145-147
      (see also remote control)
temperature sensors
      building, 221
      web site, 144, 228
Test Panel, 48
tethered robots, 3
thermistor, 221
thermometer, building instructions, 137-138
timing, 113
      timer values, retrieving, 165-166
torque, 33
touch multiplexer, 224-226
touch sensors, 31, 62, 112
      building, 219, 223-224
train motors, 35
treads, 27
triangulation, 114
tri-star wheels, 30
      web sites, 37
Trusty, a Line Follower
      instructions for building, 40-44
      programming, 44-47
            in NQC, 77-80
turning radius, 29-30
      (see also zero turning radius)

Unix, 191, 233
UploadDatalog function (Spirit.ocx), 169

View button (RCX), 48
Visual Basic, 159-171
Visual C++, 160

web sites
      challenges and competitions, 158
      Hitachi H8, 81
      Killough platform, 38
      LEGO Group, 11
      legOS, 213
      LUGNET, 11
      MINDSTORMS, 11
      NQC, 54, 81, 143
      parts, 37-38, 115
            electronic, 229
            sensors, 52, 144, 228
      pbFORTH, 143
      Pitsco LEGO DACTA, 38
      RCX, 12, 214
      RcxCC, 81
      RIS, 12
      RoboTag, 188
      Spirit.ocx, 171
      Windows platform, 214-215
wheels, 27-35
      idler wheels, 50
While function (Spirit.ocx), 166-167
Windows platform, 58, 160, 191, 233
      legOS and, web site for, 214-215
wire brick, 16
      attaching sensors, 217
worm gears, 32, 108
worms, bevel, 32

zero turning radius, 27
      (see also turning radius)

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 28, 2000

    Small, but packed with info

    In my opinion this book is worth it's price just for the instuctions for the Minerva robot. All the normal stuff is covered, RCX Code, NQC, pbForth, LegOS. This book is still well worth purchasing even though it is about a year old. My bet is that it will need to be updated before another year passes.

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