Review: The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory

Education Robotics
Review: The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory

ev3lab_cover_webThe aren’t a lot of Lego Mindstorms EV3 books out there yet, but the ones that have been released are quite good: case in point, the Lego Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory by Daniele Benedettelli.

The reason why Danny (“He prefers to be called Danny, mainly to avoid being mistaken for a girl,” his bio reads) was able to rip out a robust 400-page book a mere 2 months after the official launch of the EV3 set is that he’s been helping the Lego Group playtest EV3 since 2012. He got that awesome gig by creating a ton of amazing models that earned him a place on the Lego Mindstorms Expert Panel. His electric guitar model is one of the bonus projects that come with the EV3 set, but he also created several cool EV3 models that serve as the core of this book.

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory positions itself as having everything you need to get started learning about the new Mindstorms set, but it also isn’t dumbed down, with models and topics that cater to more advanced users. The introductory chapter explains the physical product, describing the various elements you get in the set.

(Note that the preview pages shown on the right are in full color, but the paper book is B&W. The e-version however, is in color.)

EV3L_sample1Very quickly Danny moves on to the first model, a simple-seeming rolling robot called the ROV3R–EV3 models often have 3s substituted for Es. The ROV3R is a very simple, beginner-approporiate project, but it’s no lightweight. Danny shows how to build no less than six variants including a line-follower and one with a touch-sensor-bumper.

Danny follows up the ROV3R project with several more programming and mechanical chapters, including a really first-rate section on Lego’s math. My favorite, however, is Chapter 8, “Lego Recipes”. In it Danny shows how to do a bunch of cool things mechanically, such as the best ways to reinforce beam structures, as well as a fantastic section featuring tons of different gear configurations.

The book finishes off with the remaining four models, and they range in difficulty from the basic model to really complicated. There’s a IR-sensor-equipped walking robot, a more advanced roller, a sinister-looking guard robot, and the book’s signature robot, the T-R3X, a sweet Mindstorms dinosaur. Each of the projects has a chapter devoted to programming that model.

EV3L_sample3One intriguing add-on is a lengthy comic that runs throughout the chapters, tying all of the models into a storyline involving a kid becoming the apprentice of a crazy-haired roboticist, and the robots he builds resemble the Lego models in the book. I will definitely say the comic isn’t for everyone, but I can’t see how anyone can complain because the rest of the book is so great!

The Lego Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory covers mechanical building as well as programming to such an exhaustive degree, and shows how to build five cool models. Do you only need one Lego Mindstorms EV3 book? As an author of Lego books myself, I’d like to say no–but Danny makes a pretty strong case for Laboratory being the ultimate manual for beginning EV3 builders.

I recently interviewed Danny to learn more about him and this book:

JB: In addition to an author and Mindstorms builder you’re also a high school electronics teacher. How often does your Mindstorms world get featured in your teaching world?

EV3L_sample2DB: I teach automatic systems in the last three years of the five-year-long technical high school, so it would be very easy to fit Mindstorms into my morning lessons, to show them practical examples and let them touch by hand the concepts seen in theory. Unfortunately, I don’t have the same students for 3 years, I am a supplement.

When I am called to teach, they are already so unprepared and late in learning the basic topics that I cannot but try hard to fit some trivial concept into their heads. Add that they are consumed by sloth, so making anything is hardly possible. The school does not have many resources, so often I bring my own Mindstorms to school.

My school director and my colleagues are aware of my Lego activity outside school. Most of my colleagues are kind of jealous, my director helped me to combine Mindstorms into my teaching activity. The good thing is that this year, after months of fighting with them, I finally could start an after school Lego course for 10 students of the first year (13-14 yo).

Let me talk like an old man: I realized that too often these young generations seem to think that if something is hard to achieve, then it’s not worth the effort. They were excited by the fact that I would teach them Mindstorms, but some of them almost gave up when they realized making a robot implied effort, and it could not work at the first attempt. I end up having more fun than them during the lessons.

EV3L_sample4JB: You created one of the models that are featured in the Mindstorms set, an electric guitar. Can you tell me a little about how it works?

DB: It’s a fully working guitar: you set the pitch of the note with the slider on the neck, you stroke the “string” and the guitar plays! To make it easier to play, I snapped the pitch of the notes on a pentatonic scale, so it sounds like a professional guitar solo even if you move the slider randomly. To add flexibility, you can bend the notes using the tremolo bar. As soon as time permits, I want to make a real-sized one and force my brother (professional guitarist) to learn to play it, and compose something cool for it.

Someone said the guitar “sounds like a squealing cat”. Well, partly it’s because the guy can’t play it, partly because the EV3 sound synthesis is not so good, and the IR distance sensor returns noisy readings.

JB: Regarding your book, you offer a very nice variety of robots with super basic ranging up to very complicated. Which was the most challenging of the robots to create, and why?

DB: It might not seem the most showy robot, but the most challenging robot is the WATCHGOOZ3: it is a walking bipedal robot that can balance, walk, turn, avoid obstacles (and even follow lines), built with a single retail set, and the unique thing is that it can be programmed to do all that, just by using the Brick Program app on the brick menu, without using EV3 software. It was designed using the Education Core Set first, then ported to the retail set. I will publish the instructions for the Education version as soon as I have time to make them, and will be available for free to the book owners.

JB: How critical is it to the value of the book that it only uses parts from the EV3 set? What are the challenges of limiting yourself that way?

DB: I have two different states of mind when designing using my whole Technic parts assortment (which is rather huge), and when using just a limited assortment of parts, such as the retail or the edu set. Designing using few parts is sometimes harder just because you might happen to miss that exact part which would solve all your problems, and then you have to struggle finding a good alternative, or a workaround. Or you might not have as many parts of the kind you need. But by constraining the possibilities, I work more focused, I know those are my elements, and I have to create something out of those.

A good part of my freelance business is designing custom Lego models for companies like Bricks4Kidz or BrainVyne/. Usually, these companies propose an small custom assortments of Technic elements, that’s challenging! For B4K I designed more than 100 models in 2 years using the same set of about 100 Technic elements.

JB: Tell me about the comic and what role you saw it playing in the book.

DB: The comic was a like a “divertissement.” Mindstorms books are usually a rather aseptic collection of robots with no relation with each other.
The Lego company itself creates stories behind products, if they don’t already exist. I wanted to connect all the robots of the book with a comic story, and be one of the characters of it.

It pays homage to the Lego Mindstorms Education designer Lee Magpili which appears in the story. Also, the not-so-young reader can catch a lot of quotes from movies (Back to the Future, Ghostbusters and others).

I received mixed comments about the comic story, one even saying that the book contains too many exclamation marks that offend readers’ intelligence (?!?!?!), and that the comic is violent. Where the heck is that comic violence? Have you seen anything on TV recently? The comic story is silly for sure, no presumption of being high literature. I think it’s kind of fun, at least for me it was a lot of fun to make.

JB: I loved the chapter with techniques like gear configurations, Lego math, and beam angles. Which of these tutorials do you think is the most useful for beginning robot builders?

Being a judge for FLL and a teacher, I could see a lot of examples of wrong assemblies. While it is easy to spot wrong hardware, detecting bad software is usually more difficult, as you can notice a weird behavior of the robot, otherwise you have to look at the code.

Regarding building, kids are usually thrown into building without a proper education about the geometry of the LEGO Technic system. So you see bent parts, stressed parts, long loose arms kept together with rubber bands, gears meshing in tremendous ways.

I think the most useful tutorial is the one about the gears. However, gears often come after a good design of the structure. Not many people know about the beam angles. I think LEGO Technic building tutorials might cover a whole book. There are some around (Toranomaki and the other by Sariel) but they show examples, while a good guide should cover the theory behind it, and list some essential rules of thumb.

For more information, check out Danny’s Lego Mindstorms EV3 Laboratory page, or download sample chapters from No Starch’s site.

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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