I have to admit that this one took me completely by surprise. Until recently, if you’d asked me as to my impression of Freescale, my knee-jerk reaction would have been that they make a wide range of microprocessors and microcontrollers … and that would have been about it.
My bad! Last week I had a very interesting chat with Eric Gregori, who is an Embedded Firmware Product Specialist at Freescale Semiconductor. Eric is also a robot enthusiast with over 15 years of embedded firmware design experience. His specialties are computer vision, artificial intelligence, and programming for the Windows Embedded CE, Linux, and Android operating systems. Eric also authored the Robot Vision Toolkit, and developed the RobotSee Interpreter. In his spare time (Ha!), Eric also writes for Robot magazine (www.botmag.com), and has a blog about Robotics and Embedded Systems (Click Here to see Eric's blog).
I think it’s fair to say that I impressed (perhaps “surprised” is a more appropriate word) Eric with my total lack of knowledge about all of the cool things Freescale are doing. For example, while we were talking about their new robot (see below), Eric kept on waffling on about a Tower System in the hopeful (but futile) assumption that I knew what he was talking about.
When I eventually asked “What exactly do you mean by ‘Tower System’?” there was a thoughtful pause from the other end of the phone, and then Eric continued by (a) backing up a bit and (b) speaking very slowly and using much smaller words (grin).
So here’s the deal. The Freescale Tower System is a modular development platform for training and prototyping that can save you months of development time. It comprises a bunch of interchangeable and reusable modules along with corresponding open source design files. The 60+ modules include sensor modules, actuator modules, microcontroller modules, WiFi modules, and so forth. Everything is available in the form of kits or individual modules allowing you to learn lots of cool stuff, to quickly create development platforms for your next-generation prototypes and products, and to spend more time working on differentiated solutions and less time worrying about low-level design details.
Now all of this is jolly interesting, but where do the robots come in? Well, as part of the Tower system, the folks at Freescale have introduced the Freescale robot. This is a nine-inch tall, four degrees of freedom, bipedal walking robot with a 32-bit ‘brain’ and a three-axis accelerometer for balance.
Also, they’ve introduced a sensor development kit and new Tower Mechatronics Board that enables designers to write software for a variety of sensor applications.
When used in the Freescale sensor robot, this Tower board is capable of making the robot walk and respond to touch, motion, vibration and other external stimuli. Now, you can’t tell me that this isn’t mega-cool, and the best thing is that you can augment your robot and Mechatronics Board with other Tower boards … I have visions of a small army of these robots linked by a wireless mesh network wandering around my office doing all sorts of interesting things.
But this isn’t all about me, because you can get involved also. At the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) that’s being held in Silicon Valley as I pen these words, the folks from Freescale have just announced thir Make It Challenge
design contest, which is set to take place at the Freescale Technology Forum (FTF)
June 20-23 in San Antonio, Texas. The contest will challenge attendees to develop and submit a unique sensor robotic or system design based on Freescale’s latest sensor development kit in the form of a walking robot or the Freescale Tower System.
About the Make It Challenge
To be eligible to participate in the Freescale Make It Challenge, contestants must attend FTF and complete an online course and quiz or one of two training courses offered at the forum.
The Make It Challenge will have two tracks:
- The Mechatronics Robot Track
- The Tower System Track
The challenge is limited to the first 200 registrants (100 per track), and participants can choose to enter one or both tracks. Each contestant in the Mechatronics Robot Track will receive the Freescale robot (FSLBOT) that contains the Tower Mechatronics board (TWR-MECH), as well as FSLBOT code.
Participants in the Tower System Track will receive a Tower System kit containing one controller module selected by the participant. Contestants in both tracks will have access to the on-site FTF Make It Lab, where they can work on their designs and interact with Freescale technology experts.
Contestants must enter their designs on June 22, 2011 at 4 p.m. CDT and are limited to one submission per track. Entries will be judged on application innovation and creativity, as well as integration of different elements of the tool kit provided.
Joe Grand, electrical engineer, former host of Discovery Channel's Prototype This! and president of Grand Idea Studio, Inc., will be at FTF to help judge the participants’ designs. As Joe says: "Design challenges allow engineers to learn about new technologies and think of clever and unique ways to implement them into future designs. As one of the judges for Freescale's Make It Challenge, I'm really looking forward to seeing what the FTF attendees can come up with using the Tower System."
Anton Olsen, self described “Master Geek” and GeekDad from Innovation First, Inc. (VEX Robotics) will also be on the panel of judges. As part of the Mechatronic Robot Track, participants will have access to various products from VEX Robotics. VEX 3-wire motors and servos can be controlled by the TWR-MECH board, making the Mechatronic Design Challenge even more exciting.
First place winners of each track will receive $3,000 USD, second place $2,000 USD and third place $1,000 USD. The grand prize winner, selected from the first place track winners, will receive a Freescale Motorsports VIP weekend package for two, which includes travel and lodging for an upcoming motorsport event. For official rules; visit www.freescale.com/MakeItChallenge
About Freescale Tower Mechatronics
Freescale's Tower Mechatronics Board, robot and software allow users to experiment with acceleration, magnetic, pressure, and touch sensors, as well as electromechanical controls for industrial and consumer applications. The goal of the Tower Mechatronics Board and sensor robot is to help designers create innovative projects as quickly and easily as possible.
The Tower Mechatronics Board combines 32-bit computing, sensors and an actuator control onto a single standalone board with an on-board battery supply. The board, controlled by a 32-bit ColdFire microcontroller with 64K of RAM and 512K of flash, supports the range of Freescale Xtrinsic sensors via plug-in daughter boards.
The Tower mechatronics board is also supported by a range of development software. RobotSee is a scripting language as easy as BASIC, with the power of C that can be used without prior programming experience to create innovative projects. The Tower Mechatronics Board operates standalone, but can be plugged into the Tower System to expand its capabilities. Freescale’s robot is a sensor development kit controlled by the Tower Mechatronics Board, which includes simple development tools that help designers learn to write software for sensors.
Pricing and availability
The Tower Mechatronics Board and sensor robot are available now and can be ordered directly at www.freescale.com/MechBot
- FSLBOT ($199 USD) - includes the Tower Mechatronics Board, four PWM controlled RC servos, leg mechanics and associated hardware, assembly instructions, a Tower Mechatronics Board user guide and a quick start guide
- TWR-MECH ($99 USD) - includes an Xtrinsic MMA8451Q 3-axis accelerometer, MCF52259 32-bit ColdFire processor and MPR121 touch sensor, Tower Mechatronics Board user guide and quick start guide
- LFDA8451 ($25 USD) provides a device adapter for the Freescale MMA8451Q 14-bit 3-axis accelerometer
About the Freescale Technology Forum
Created to drive innovation and collaboration, the folks from Freescale say that their Freescale Technology Forum (FTF) has become the developer event of the year for the embedded systems industry. The Forum has drawn more than 40,000 customers at FTF events worldwide since its inception in 2005. Their annual flagship event, FTF Americas, will take place June 20–23, 2011 in its new location in San Antonio, Texas.