Portland, Ore. -- Analog Devices Inc. has teamed with robotics expert Fred Martin to create a single-board solution for autonomous robots. The Blackfin Handy Board, containing all the electronics needed for sensing, processing and actuating robots, will be announced this week at the Embedded Systems Conference.
"What this board provides, in addition to the Blackfin processor, is all the sensor input/motor output circuits built in for hooking up to external devices," said Martin, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "This board will appeal to domain experts in electrical engineering as well as academic researchers in mechanical engineering, physics, microbiology, astronomy and artificial intelligence--basically, anybody who wants to automate a control system but wants to concentrate on their application instead of on wiring circuits and writing code."
The original Handy Board was designed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by then-students Martin, Mike Parker and Randy Sargent for MIT's Autonomous Robot Design Competition. The HandyBoard's design was published as open source and has become the most popular vehicle to get a robot up and running quickly. The board itself has been widely copied around the world. The Blackfin Handy Board, the first complete redesign of the Handy Board, has also been published as open source.
"Back in 1990, we created a new category of robot controller," said Martin. As a doctoral candidate at MIT, Martin focused on how much better students learned robotics by using the HandyBoard to build them. His work included an interactive C compiler for the board.
The redesigned board builds in Ethernet and digital video interfaces, a dc stepper motor controller, radio-controlled servo motor controllers and electronic speed controllers, an integrated battery and charger, a 4 x 16-character LCD screen and banks of I/Os for raw analog and digital signals.
"Now we have a state-of-the-art platform with all sorts of possibilities, including signal processing, robot vision, on-board field-programmable gate array--all the things you need to teach advanced classroom robotics," said Martin.
The Blackfin 537 microcontroller included on the Handy Board was the result of a collaboration between Intel Corp. and Analog Devices to produce a signal processor that would double as a RISC processor. Blackfin combines RISC performance with integrated power management to keep consumption low, even though it runs at 600 MHz. It costs $15, compared with $50 and up for other RISC processors. The integral DSP functions of the Blackfin are booted from a 1-Mbyte flash memory on the board.
Analog Devices has also included its two-axis accelerometer, originally crafted to trigger airbag deployment in automobiles, on the Handy Board so that robots can tell when they have bumped into something.
Also on the 3.25 x 5.64-inch board is a Xilinx Spartan-3E FPGA, which comes preprogrammed as the motor sensor controller but is also end-user programmable for special custom applications, enabling highly advanced hardware control, according to Analog Devices.
The Blackfin Handy Board comes with Interactive C, a cross-platform, multitasking version of the C programming language that is popular among roboticists. Analog Devices has also collaborated with National Instruments to implement the latter's LabView software, a visual signal-processing and programming environment that targets embedded processors including the Blackfin.
A software library that comes with the redesigned board includes software operators custom-designed to manage all board resources, such as data acquisition from sensors and motor control. The software enables users to pick icons off a palette, then wire them on-screen to solve robotic application problems.
The Blackfin Handy Board supports Linux software development for embedded processors using the "GNU is Not Unix" kernel called uClinux, as well as ADI's own Visual DSP++ programming system.