Electronic Design

EiED Online>> RoboNexus And ARM Conferences

It has been a hectic week traveling around California. There were half a dozen shows, lots of vendors to visit, and a good bit of driving. Two of the shows stood out: the ARM Developers Conference and Robonexus. Of course, I was not able to stay for the duration of any event but there was still a lot to see. Here are the highlights.

ARM Developers Conference
The floor of the ARM show was dead during the numerous sessions. Of course, that gave me plenty of time to interview vendors. The rush came after the sessions let out, but ARM may want to shut down the vendor floor show during sessions to save on vendors' shoe leather.

There were plenty of ARM and ARM-related announcements that we will be covering in the November 7 issue of Electronic Design, including a new ARM architecture, the Cortex-A8 with NEON SIMD multimedia support (see "Mobile Systems Get Performance Boost From Next-Gen ARM Core" in 11/07/05 issue and "Java Gets New Shot In The ARM," EIED article). One key aspect of this announcement is a switch to the Jazelle RCT (Jazelle Runtime Compilation Target) Java acceleration approach versus the existing Jazelle DBX (Direct Bytecode eXecution).

Jazelle DBX, which is specifically designed to run Java only, executes Java bytecodes directly. Jazelle RCT executes a new 16-bit instruction set called Thumb-2EE that is not quite a superset of Thumb2. It is a very good target for Java compilers, but it is equally suitable for other, similar programming environments like Microsoft's .NET CLR (Common Language Runtime) that support C# and J#. It can also be used with other programming languages such as Python and Perl.

Jazelle RCT adds two instructions to enter and exit Thumb-2EE mode. I haven't sent the actual instruction encoding yet, but it would seem that they could use the same encoding. The majority of the Thumb-2EE instructions are the same as Thumb-2 instructions. Some Thumb-2 instructions operate slightly different in Thumb-2EE mode and there are additional instructions in Thumb-2EE mode as well.

In general, the changes address some of the more common implicit operations associated with more protective languages such as Java and C#, including null pointer detection and array bounds checking. Other operations, such as object creation, are relegated to conventional code sequences.

The changes allow compilation between bytecodes and Thumb-2EE instructions to be a one-to-one mapping. Even so, initial evaluation of the architecture indicates that there is not a significant code size increase because of the frequency of multibyte operations in bytecode encoding.

Thumb-2EE code can be generated by a JIT (just-in-time) or AOT (ahead-of-time) compiler. An AOT compiler is what C and C++ developers use all the time, so there is no secret here.

Some other announcements at the show included one from STmicroelectronics with its STR730F 32-MIPS ARM7TDMI. It comes in an industrial extended temperature range (-40°C to +105°C) version. It also incorporates a 16-channel DMA, three independent CAN controllers, a 3-µs 16-channel/10-bit ADC, and up to 16 PWM timer outputs. It can be equipped with up to 256 kbytes of flash. Pricing starts around $4.53.

Atmel was showing off its AT91SAM7X flash-based ARM microcontroller with Ethernet, CAN, USB, and serial interfaces. Keil Software was showing off its Keil Professional Development Suite for ARM with a Philips-based ARM kit.

There was quite a bit more at the conference, but I need to move onto Robonexus before I run out of space.

This was the second year for Robonexus, and it was larger than last year ("Robots Strut Their Stuff At RoboNexus," ED Online 9082). It is an interesting mix of consumer and commercial vendors plus some competitions and presentations targeted at budding robotics engineers. The kids even had their own line to register (see Fig. 1).

One of the first things I saw entering the show floor was iRobot's Packbot EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) (see Fig. 2). Military and security applications were key themes for many of the commercial vendors. Of course, there were plenty of Roombas and Scoobas rolling around as well. iRobot is expecting to go public soon, so they didn't have as much to talk about as they usually do. You can get the details on their projects via iRobot's website. Roomba is probably the most successful consumer robot. It is going to get plenty of competition.

Floorbotics was not showing their products at Robonexus, but I did get a chance to talk with them about their technology. They are targeting industrial cleaning and had some interesting war stories. For example, one of their prototypes had a few parts and screws that fell off the unit that quickly vacuumed them up. Talk about cleaning up after oneself.

Off to one side, Openware Robotics demonstrated their latest adaptive intelligent mobile surveillance robot (IMSR) ExplorBot ("Sci-Fi Robots Edge Closer To Reality," ED Online 10577). A video was showing it pull a pickup truck. The latest version has a wedge shape that makes it more rugged in windy environments.

Companies like Parallax brought a host of products targeted at students, like their popular BoeBot (see Fig. 3). Parallax had a new kit with a pair of SumoBots and a battle ring, as well as a low-cost system called the Scribbler that comes with a graphical programming interface.

Not all robots were fully functional. There was a display of Hollywood robots (see Fig. 4) that included a few from movies some may be unfamiliar with, like Silent Running directed by Douglas Trumbull and starring Bruce Dern. I just couldn't recall if they were showing off Huey or Duey.

Moving back to the practical, Machine Bus was showing off a set of CAN-based modules called mBus modules (see Fig. 5). CAN seems to be gaining in popularity in robotics work. A DIP version of the modules is expected in the near future. Now if there were just a CAN-based servo. Looking for more details on CAN? Check out "CAN Can Where Ethernet Does Not," ED Online 9131 and "CAN 201: CAN Controllers,> ED Online 10925.

Another system at the show was running CAN as well. Systronix had its latest TStik2 (see "Tiny Stick Runs Java, CAN, Ethernet, 1-Wire, I 2C, And SPI," ED Online 11324, to be posted November 7). The TStik2 is a built on a SIMM. It runs TINI Java on a 30-MHz Maxim-IC DS80C400 8-bit processor. The board also has an Ethernet interface along with a host of other peripheral interfaces. It is very popular as a robotic host processor.

Two-wheeled robots were common at the show. OLogic had a number of them, including one that would follow the color red (see Fig. 6). (**watch video of the robot in action at http://www.tedlarson.com/robots/video/mbtarget2.wmv) The company uses MEMS technology similar to that found in Segway's Human Transporter (HT). BalBot uses a pair of infrared sensors for their offering (see Fig. 7). Balancing robots are fun to watch and have significant benefits as well. They can move in confined spaces and tend to be more robust on rugged surfaces. Surprisingly, a balancing robot at rest uses very little power.

Robots modeled after humans were also doing some interesting things. Hitec RCD used a collection of RoboNova robots (see Fig. 8) to show off their coordination. The line of robots started a coordinated dance routine-complete with music-that was quite impressive.

Other platforms included Rogue Robotics' tracked vehicle (see Fig. 9) and a low-cost robot arm from Advanced Micro Robotics. The MicroArm (see Fig. 10) works with most programming languages and comes with a graphical Windows application for interactive work.

Commercial platforms were easy to find as well. Segway had its RMP line that now includes a very rugged RMP 400. It only stands about 2 feet tall, but it can tackle hills and keeps running even after flipping over a small cliff. The RMP 100 and RMP 2000 are two-wheeled vehicles based on Segway HT technology.

Evolution Robotics was showing off its commercial solutions and development tools including LaneHawk, Northstar Developer Bundle, and ERSP. LaneHawk is a camera-based system that is targeted at stores where carts at checkout counters are common. The system identifies objects that are placed under the cart. These are often overlooked by tellers and forgotten by customers.

The Northstar Developer Bundle runs $1795. Northstar is a localization system that includes a detector and an IR projector. The projector puts a set of IR dots on the ceiling that can be identified by a detector that is normally placed on a robot. The system handles mapping and positioning details.

I'll be writing up a more detailed evaluation of ERSP 3.1 in the near future. ERSP is essentially a robotics platform that is designed to simplify a wide range of robotic behavior and sensor inputs, including cameras. Portions of ERSP are used in Sony's Aibo and LaneHawk.

Mobile Robots' PatrolBot (see Fig. 11) was one of many of their offerings at the show. The PatrolBot comes complete with its own charging station. Innova Holdings' also had a number of rugged, semiautonomous vehicles like its robotic arm (see Fig. 12) dressed up in camouflage green.

Of course, a robot show is not all work. There was plenty of fun and games like a little Sony Aibo that went riding instead of running (see Fig. 13). A number of tables and arenas were setup for the weekend when various competitions were being held. I didn't get to see those, but there were plenty of robots being used to test out and show off the competition sites (see Fig. 14).

Around the corner was Wowee's Robosapien (see Fig. 15). The robot is controlled using an infrared remote control unit. It is not an autonomous robot, but many of the robots at the show are not. It does have the benefit of being very inexpensive. Wowee is also working with Segway, so there are likely two-wheeled, balancing toys coming in the future. Some inspired hackers may want to use these platforms for a more robust robot.

There were a pair of larger robots, including one from Lynbrook High School (see Fig. 16)and another that just seemed to appear on its own (see Fig. 17). Lynbrook High School's booth was highlighting FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology). FIRST is a great way for a school to get a group of students involved in robotics, engineering, and teamwork. There are local, regional, and national competitions.

Robots are improving on all fronts, but they still work best in limited environments. It was great to see a significant number of autonomous vehicles finishing in this year's DARPA Grand Challenge race. Students, teachers, and researchers have more sophisticated and less expensive platforms available to them, with most of the major ones appearing at the show. Military and police are using or evaluating a wide range of robots for everything from bomb removal to search and surveillance. Tactical is still primarily a research effort at this point. Consumer robotics remain divided between toys and vacuum cleaners. There is more coming, but it will take a little longer to get here. Finally, commercial solutions tend to be the most successful because the robot's environments can be controlled. Robotic arms are one example where refinements are taking place instead of experimentation.

Next year's RoboBusiness and Robonexus should be rather interesting.

Related Links
Advanced Micro Robotics




DARPA Grand Challenge




Frontline Robotics

Hitec RCD

Innova Holdings


Keil Software

LynBrook High School, San Jose, CA; Team 846

Machine Bus

Maxim IC

Mobile Robots

Openware Robotics







Rogue Robotics





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