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Ben (left) and his friend Vincent, learning how to solder at Maker Faire New York 2010


The trashcan telepresence bot (named MAYA) Ben built after the Faire


MAYA making friends at a local nursing home

Right before this past weekend’s Maker Faire, I got an email message from Ben, a 13 year old from South East Pennsylvania. He told me an amazing story about him going to last year’s Maker Faire New York, learning how to solder, and then planning and building a telepresence robot for a science fair project afterwards. I told him I wanted to publish his story and asked to have a parent email me permission. The letter I got from his mom was amazingly moving. Not only had Ben learned soldering at the Faire and parleyed that into an amazing robot science project, he’d had a very serious illness leading up to the NY Faire and had set his sights on the Faire as a get-well goal for himself. His mom writes:

It was honestly touch and go for him for several days in the hospital… And as he was lying there, speaking to him on and off, I was trying to think of things to give him hope, encouragement… I had never heard of the Maker’s Fair, but Ben surely had — and at one point, he looked at me and said, “Mom, do you know what I’d really like when I get better? To go to the Maker Faire in New York.” At that point, I had NO idea what the fair was… but I went online and purchased tickets for the two of us and one of his friends and just thought to myself that there was nothing in the world that I wanted to do more than to make it to that fair!

Ben did make it through, got better, and got his dream of going to Maker Faire. And now he’s an inspired robot builder. Here, he describes his MAYA Robot:

For the local science fair this year, I built a telepresence robot, MAYA, standing for “Me And You Anywhere.” It was built to help the elderly. Since the base is a Roomba, it can even vacuum while you’re visiting! It has other features, like a full-size robotic arm and object recognition for identifying various pills. I made the whole thing for under $500, and it has capabilities exceeding some of the pricier robots such as the VGo. AND, the body is made out of a trashcan! Granted, a lot of modifications were made to it, but it works. And to think, I learned how to solder at the SparkFun booth last year! (I now have an Aoyue Soldering Station for SMD Rework in addition to through-hole. And a fume extractor, too!)

Next year, I’m building a robot with Artificial Intelligence off of wheel chair motors. Most of the coding’s done, just have to get all the parts.

[Ben has more details on the build after the jump]

The Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner has a little port on the side that was originally put there for Diagnostics. iRobot released an OSMO a while back, the OSMO Hacker, which basically allows you to turn your Roomba into an iRobot Create. The Roomba is only 50 bucks on eBay and comes with a rechargeable battery, unlike the Create. I have an Instructables, and a blog. That lists most of the parts. There’s a program, RoboRealm, that basically is an open program that allows you to control a bunch of different robotic things. Its only available for Windows, so I had to make the robot Window- based… I’m more of a Mac person, so naturally I tried to run it in Wine, but the serial converter was giving me problems. I had a Netbook which I did NOT wipe and install Snow Leopard on, so I just added a partition for XP. After a little debugging on the Windows side, I had a working Roomba Module with an HTML Webserver.

The body was difficult. A family friend has a workshop, and is responsible for most of the design. In addition, he taught me how to use most of the machinery. (I’m in the process of buying a mini-mill and plan to add CNC!) The body, like I said, is a trashcan from Big Lots. It was his idea to make the body, so there’s no modification to the Roomba itself. (No holes, etc.) It uses existing screw holes. The process is covered on the instructables. A lot also went into the charging process. It required hacking the stock dock/power supply, and adding some voltage converters.

The capabilities are really determined on the computer inside. The cheap Netbook I’m using can stream decent video, but not HD, like the webcam. If you were to stick a Macbook or something like that in there, you’d have full H.264. The other great thing about RoboRealm is that modules like Object Recognition are built in. You can have it track things like lasers or even people. I added Object Recognition because if a doctor were to be using it, he could identify certain pills or perhaps dangerous things.

Besides the software problems, there was definitely a weight issue. A Roomba isn’t exactly meant to be carrying 20 pounds. The original LCD weighed 15 pounds, but I was able to find a $80 display on Amazon that weighed 3lbs. The whole setup weighs 20 pounds. It works great on anything flat, but it won’t move on carpet. (Even if its really short) The Roomba crawls on some carpets, without any weight.

I entered the Robot in the Local Science Fair. I got Best In Show for the County and Regional Fairs. I’m in the National Broadcom Fair now, and you submit an online as an entry. In addition, I got money from the Airforce, IEEE (Institute of Electrical Engineers), Military, and a couple others.

Quite frankly, no one is going to buy a $20,000 robot to remotely visit their mom. A $500 robot, however, is reasonable. I did research and nearby nursing homes, and on a scale of 1-10, 1 being a phone call and 10 being an actual visit, MAYA ranked an 8.3.

This summer, I’m planning to start releasing kits for the body and the charging system so you just pop in your own laptop. What a great way to spend a summer!

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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