Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Computer Controlling a Syma Helicopter

Recently, I've been playing with these inexpensive Syma Remote Control Helicopters. At the time they were only $20 (but seemed have been price adjusted for the holidays). They're quite robust to crashes and pretty easy to fly. For $20, they're a blast. The other interesting thing about these copters is that the controller transmits commands using simple infrared LEDs rather than a proper radio. This simplicity makes it tauntingly appealing to try reverse engineering. So tonight, I decided to do a little procrastineering and see if I could get my helicopter to become computer controlled.

For hardware, I've been liking these Teensy USB boards because they are cheap, small, versatile, and have a push-button boot loader that makes iteration very quick. They can be easily configured to appear as a USB serial port and respond to commands. For the IR protocol, I started with this web page which got the helicopter responding. But, the behavior I was getting was very stuttery and would not be sufficient for reliable autonomous control. So, I decided to take a closer look with an oscilloscope to get accurate timing from the stock remote control. Some of my measured numbers were fairly different for the web tutorial I found. But, now the control is fairly solid. So, here is the nitty gritty:

IR Protocol:

- IR signal is modulated at 38KHz.
- Packet header is 2ms on then 2ms off
- Packet payload is 4 bytes in big-endian order:
1. yaw (0-127) default 63
2. pitch (0-127) default 63
3. throttle (0-127 for channel A, 128-255 for channel B) default 0
4. yaw correction (0-127) default 63
- Packet ends with a stop '1' bit

Format of a '1' is 320us on then 680us off (1000us total)
Format of a '0' is 320us on then 280us off (600us total)

Packets are sent from the stock controller every 120ms. You can try to send commands faster, but the helicopter may start to stutter as it misses messages.

Download Teensy AVR Code (updated 11/30/2011)

The code is available at the above link. It's expecting 5 byte packets over the serial port at 9600 baud. The first byte of each packet must be 255, followed by yaw, pitch, throttle, and yaw correction (each ranging from 0-127). It will return a 'k' if 5 bytes are properly read. If it doesn't receive any serial data for 300ms, it will stop transmitting the IR signal.

Unfortunately, I can't help you write a program to communicate over serial since that will depend on your OS (Windows, Mac, Linux) and varies by language as well. But, it is fairly easy with lots of web tutorials. The harder challenge will be figuring out how to update the 3 analog values to keep it from crashing. =o) The most likely candidate is to use a camera (probably with IR markers) to monitor the position of the helicopter. But, getting that to work well is definitely a project unto itself.

Good Luck!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Shredder Challenge - Puzzle 2 done! Onto Puzzle 3

Puzzle 2 is now done! Puzzle 3 is a drawing (not text).

As we get to more complicated puzzles, it's clear that loading, rendering, and UI limitations will become a bigger and bigger issue. My colleague, Dan Maynes-Aminzade ("monzy" for short) is doing his best to figure out ways to handle that. There are a lot of not-ideal solutions.

It's also clear that more computer aided matching will be necessary to maintain progress. Here are zip files for the pieces of problem 4 and problem 5, if you want to try your hand at analyzing them directly.

Puzzle 4 pieces
Puzzle 5 pieces

If you come up with good ideas that work, post them in the comments.

Puzzle 1 done overnight!

Puzzle 1 was completed overnight! Very cool. They definitely get harder. But, the crowd helped UCSD complete puzzles 2 and 3 within a couple of days. So, we could easily catch up.

On to puzzle 2

Monday, November 21, 2011

DARPA Shredder Challenge - you could win $50,000

On October 27th, DARPA announced their Shredder Challenge. Try to unshred 5 documents for $50,000. There has been a few notable efforts such as UCSD's web based approach. But, that page has recently been compromised due to malicious users.

With the help of a few colleagues, we had also created a web-based version very early on. But, it was missing some of the login engineering and UI of the UCSD effort. So, we never made it public. But rather than attempt to build a full on competitor, we've decided to open up the tool we built for anyone to try to win the contest themselves!

You can create a private branch of each puzzle if you want to try to give it a go alone, or you can contribute to the main public copy of the puzzle. If our image analysis tinkering goes well, we may add some tools to help make finding matches easier.

NOTE: The deadline for submitting answers to DARPA is December 4, 2011 (11:59PM EST)! Only 13 days left.


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Technology as a story

Generally, I consider myself a technologist. I work in technology, I choose environments that have people who are excellent at it. New technologies make the world move forward. If it is shared broadly enough, it is impossible to "un-invent" a technology and thus the world has been irrevocably changed, even if just by a little bit.

However, what saddens me is when I encounter technologists with the brilliance to create new and wonderful things, but lack a sense of what is beautiful to people. Technology is most often known for being ugly and unpleasant to use, because technologists most often build technology for other technologists.

But to touch millions of people, you have to tell a story - a story that they can believe in, a story that can inspire them. Technology is a tool by which new stories can be crafted. They are not the end product unto themselves. All too often, I find engineers and researchers who are eager to build the technology without understanding the story that goes around about why people should care, why what they built can be inspiring rather than just enabling.

It is not a skill you learn at school. I have encountered people who understand this, and others who don't. I can't say that I have mastered this ability. However, I can at least respect how powerful it can be and strive to be better at it.

As an engineer, as a technologist, as a researcher, or inventor... I encourage you understand the power of stories. A story isn't merely the sequence of events in a book or film. It can be a story about you, and how your life or the lives of the people around you could be a bit different... or how the world could be different than it is today.

It is inspiring to see what a talented artist can do with the very simplest of tools. I recently came across the following video which I feel exemplifies this idea.

When you build something or design something, take a moment to imagine the stories than can be told around what you create and to share that story with others.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Kinect Effect

This is hands down, the best Microsoft commercial I have ever seen. It has soul. It has spirit. It has open optimism about what a company and creative enthusiasts can do together. They are even showcasing kinect projects on the official website


My hats off the the tens of thousands of creative developers who have explored the wide ranging uses of Kinect and, of course, to Microsoft & Xbox for seeing that it is a very positive thing to embrace. Yes, Kinect is a product that ultimately must make money through games and applications. But, it can also have a remarkably positive impact on our culture.

Best $3000 I ever spent.