Hack Hitchin

Making a Hackspace, part 3

August 1st, 2017

Previously, we had finally agreed on how the building would be arranged, but needed permission from the local council (in their role as landlord) before we could start on any major work.

Original building layout

Diagram of layout M

What it will eventually look like


The drawings were sent over to the council, and they’re happy with what we’re wanting to do, so finally there’s nothing standing between us and a fully kitted out-hackspace.

This, of course, assumes you redefine “nothing” to mean

  • building control consent
  • money
  • somewhere to put the waste
  • time
  • effort
  • more money
  • more effort

The local council’s building control people are mostly concerned that removing the internal walls doesn’t destabilise the external walls, making the whole thing fall down. The next step is to find a structural engineer who can give them (and us, since we’ll be the ones in the building!) suitable reassurance that everything will be fine.

Unexpected discovery

There are certain things in life you take for granted. Death, taxes, the rising and setting of the sun. And that a group of people with a wall they want to knock down, and a collection of tools, will eventually make a hole in it…

Hole in the wall. The floor on the other side is higher

Something else we had taken for granted was that the floor in the new space was level. And, after bashing the wall a bit, it turns out we were wrong, to the tune of about 15 centimetres. The gents and cistern room are level with each other, which is fortunate as we’d agreed to turn them into one room, but their floor is higher than the ladies. The reason for this is that Bancroft (the road the building is on) slopes very slightly, so building the floors at different heights means both entrances are exactly at pavement level.

In practical terms, this means there is a fairly small step between the two sides, and it could be left as such. However, our aim has always been to make a fully accessible hackspace, so it will mean building a ramp up in the workshop (ex-ladies toilets). A ramp down to the level of the ladies on the office side (ex-cistern room) isn’t possible as it would involve digging out the floor in that part of the building, which is actually manhole covers over a sewer.

Hungry, Hungry Hipposkip

Hippo, the yellow waste bag people, were kind enough to give us a free Hipposkip and collection under their Grants Up For Grabs scheme. We managed to get rid of 4.5 cubic yards of waste, including toilet doors, doorframes, cisterns, concrete slab cubicle walls from the ladies toilets, a load of bricks, pipes and other rubbish.

Before the clear-out

Before the clear-out

Before the clear-out

After a solid Sunday afternoon of shifting and tidying, the place is looking a lot cleaner now, and thanks to Hippo’s generosity, we have a bit more space to work on the things we need to do next without risk of tripping over a load of rubbish.

After the clear-out

After the clear-out

After the clear-out

A big yellow bag of waste. And, just off the left of the picture, a telegraph pole. Sorry.

Extra special thanks to the Hippo vehicle driver, who managed to collect the bag from under the phone lines that I forgot were there despite the clear instructions that the collection area must be free of overhead wires.

Let there be lights

As alluded to above, money is not sloshing freely around this project, so several Hackspace members have taken to watching the local Freecycle and Freegle groups for anything which could be useful. We hit a small jackpot with some brand new office lighting which had come, unused, from a warehouse clearance.

Eight new, never-used office light fittings ready to be put into their new home

There are three long light fittings, and five short ones. No decision has been made yet about where the lights will go, but this gives us more options to move lights around and find the best solution for lighting up the entire space.

Water tank platform

As part of the building’s history as a public toilet, there was a pretty solid wooden platform in the roof space, sitting on the walls of the cistern room. It was there to support two large water tanks (and 2 tonnes of water) for washing hands and flushing toilets.

We’d already removed the tanks themselves, and the plumbing which they were connected to.

Water tank platform and insulated shed

Since we want to get rid of most of one wall, and cut a big doorway in the other, the tank platform which it was supporting also had to go, along with the “shed” of polystyrene-insulated walls which surrounded it to protect the water in the tanks against freezing in winter.

Polystyrene insulated walls removed, and water tank platform taken out where the cistern room wall (behind the ladder) will be demolished

Over the course of two evenings, we removed the insulated shed walls and the floor of the platform, before taking up the support beams between the two cistern room walls. A few beams at the back of the building were left in place, where the cistern room walls on both sides will be retained (backing on to the old disabled toilets)

What’s next?

As mentioned above, we need to get building control approval to take down the walls we want to remove, and put a new doorway in from one side to the other. Once we have that, the walls need to actually come down, ceilings and floors need to be patched up, unused drains need to be filled, a ramp needs to be made, and so on. There’s a more comprehensive list in the previous post.

And… money. We need more of it, so fundraising is going to be a thing. You might well see us out and about in Hitchin town centre in the near future. If you do, please chuck us a quid or two. Or come and get involved…

Help wanted

As always, we would welcome any assistance, financial or practical, particularly if you have any relevant building experience (but enthusiasm and a willingness to help is a good substitute). New members are always welcome; get in touch, or pop along to the build night or monthly pub meet

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Making a Hackspace, part 2

June 26th, 2017

Previously, we were working on our biggest challenge, namely getting a large group of people to agree on the layout of the new space.

We finally managed it.

Original building layout

Diagram of layout M

Layout M

It should give some idea of the scale of the task that the winning layout is “Layout M”, the previous 12 layouts A to O having not passed muster for whatever reason. We were seriously concerned at one point that we’d run out of letters in the alphabet and end up building something like Layout Eye Of Horus.

So, what are we going to do?

The wall between the central cistern room and the former gents toilets will be demolished, opening the “office” space up. The office area will have desks and benches for using laptops and doing “clean” craft activities and electronics (the sorts of things we can do at our current rented space on Monday nights).

A doorway will be created from the cistern room to the former ladies toilets, which will become the workshop.

The janitor’s rooms in both sides will be knocked down, with a half of one wall retained in the office side to separate the tea-making area from the rest of the room. Some sort of device for producing boiling water will be added (maybe a kettle, maybe something better if we can stretch to it), along with tea and coffee, a sink for washing up, and at least one passive-aggressive reminder to wash up after yourself…

The disabled toilets cubicles will be built up to ceiling height to become an accessible toilet on the office side, and a small room for anything especially messy, smelly or unpleasant on the workshop side. Extraction will be fitted to both those rooms, as well as for the laser cutter and possibly some of the dusty machinery. The back wall of the toilet features a gable end, meaning we can vent the air well above head height so as not to annoy (or choke) passing pedestrians.

The main entrance will be on the office side, with a fire escape/secondary door in the workshop.

Other than deciding how we want the building to look, what have we done to get there?

The rip-out of the old toilets has continued, with the ladies janitor’s room being emptied of shelves, sink, broken water heater, sockets and so on. Sinks in both the ladies and gents have been removed, and the remaining toilets have been uprooted and put aside for disposal. After a lot of hammering, drilling, chiseling and levering, one of the trough urinals in the gents has been removed. We would do the other one too, but it’s behind a lot of bricks and other rubbish.

The lighting in the building has been reconnected to the power, and other than a couple of broken bulbs, it works. This has allowed us to get more done in the evening, with Thursday nights becoming “hack the Hackspace” night.

Also reconnected to the power, and the water, is the remaining water heater. After a bit of poking and a lot of descaler, it is now producing buckets of hot water. It’s also in the wrong place, being mounted to a wall which we plan to demolish, so it will need to be moved.

Having power has also meant we could tackle the water tanks in the loft, which needed cutting up into smaller pieces before they could be lowered through the loft hatch and into the big pile of rubbish. A couple of itchy evenings chopping up the fibreglass tanks later, and, bar a few stray bits of pipe, we have now removed the last major pieces of the old plumbing.

Unwanted doors and doorframes have been removed, along with extraneous conduit, wiring and pipework from the cistern room, everything from the ladies disabled toilet cubicle (which will eventually become the dirty/smelly/noxious work cubicle in the workshop), and a heap of junk from the gents.

The only thing which has so far stubbornly resisted any attempt to remove it is the old hand-dryer in the ladies toilet. It’s made of cast iron and is held together by two bolts which we’ve been unable to undo to get at the screws holding it on the wall. At this rate, it’ll probably be there until the wall is knocked down, which is certainly one way of shifting it.

At this point, the toilets have largely been stripped back to an empty building, and it’s time for the building to begin.

What next?

We have accumulated a huge pile of rubbish to get rid of. We’ll probably use our free Hippobag soon to get rid of some of the bricks (the first tonne of them) and the lightweight rubbish. The rest will have go into a skip.

The big thing, once we’ve got plans approved by the council, is to start knocking down walls. The janitor’s room walls are relatively simple; a single skin of brick which doesn’t hold anything up. The cistern room walls are a trickier affair; our current belief is that they only hold up the platform on which the water tanks we removed sat upon (which, at 2 tonnes, is a lot of water), but someone cleverer than us will need to confirm it before we start swinging hammers about carefully removing bricks.

Other things which need doing after that, in no particular order:

  • more rubble disposing of. Knocking down the walls will create a lot of waste brick
  • ceilings made good. They weren’t in the best condition even before someone made a foot-shaped dent near the loft hatch, and there will be gaps where walls are removed
  • walls tidied up and decorated somehow
  • lighting moved or replaced and rewired. Two of the lights sit across where we want to build walls up from the tops of the disabled cubicles, while the lighting in the three janitor/service rooms have their own switches which won’t make sense once walls are removed
  • floor tidied up. Like the ceiling, there will be gaps where the walls are removed, as well as where the urinals are, and the cistern room has manhole covers over a sewer which need sealing.
  • unused drains capping and filling in
  • doors fitting to replace the iron gates which block the doorways
  • the windows need replacing.
  • the roof needs fixing. We’ve managed to source a load of tiles to replace broken or missing ones, but even after that there’s still the small matter of the rotten rafter to replace.

As before, we would welcome any assistance, particularly if you have any relevant building experience (but enthusiasm and a willingness to help is a good substitute). New members are always welcome; get in touch, or pop along to the build night or monthly pub meet

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Dates for your diary

May 2nd, 2017

Just a quick update this time.

Our build nights for May will be on the:
As usual, these will be held from 7:30pm in the pavilion on Ransom’s Rec, off Nightingale Road.

The social night is going to be on the 9th. This will be in The Vic, at the end of Bancroft, from 7:30pm.

Progress with the Bancroft toilet block is slow and steady. There is a fair amount of grunt work, as well as more specialised jobs to get done. If you’d like to get involved with the renovation process and think you have skills we could utilise, please get in touch. The sooner we can make this our permanent home, the better.

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Making a Hackspace, part 1

April 4th, 2017

On March 14th 2017 Hitchin Hackspace celebrated its fifth birthday. For most of the last five years, we’ve met once a week in a hired room, but the limitations of that, such as only being able to work on things on a Monday evening, having very limited space for tools and equipment, and not being able to store projects, were becoming a problem. However, just over a month before the celebrations, we got an early birthday present: the keys to our very own space. Not that it was ready for us to walk in and start Hackspacing. It needs a bit of work doing first. In fact, it was a bit of a toilet.


Plan of building

Current building layout

In late 2007, North Herts District Council closed up the public toilets on Bancroft, a road in Hitchin running from the pub where we hold our social evening, to the town centre. A few years later, a large mural was placed over the front, in an attempt to make it look less like an abandoned toilet. Some time later, we expressed an interest in using the building, and finally, after an epic set of bureaucracy, we have a 5 year lease on the building.

So what do you do with an abandoned public toilet? How do you turn it into a Hackspace?

Blue mural

The mural covering the front of the building

Opening the door

Mark and Dave attempting to break and enter

Open door

Success! We have since made this more secure

The first thing we did was have a good look around. Our lease started on February 9th, but it took a few more days to ge the keys to the padlocks which would allow us to enter. Reasoning that we couldn’t get into trouble for “breaking and entering” into our own building, we managed to bypass past the padlocks (priority number 1, improve security) to inspect what we’d agreed to look after for 5 years.

The most obvious problem was that after being abandoned for almost an entire decade, the back of the building was in danger of being engulfed by triffids ivy and other plants, while the roof was covered in a thick layer of moss, twigs and decomposing leaves.

Overgrown building exterior

Mark and Dave removing plants from the rear of the building.

It soon became apparent that these plants were doing more than just looking a mess; they were damaging the roof too. It had leaked in a few places, with some rotten roof beams the unwelcome result (priority number 2, clear off the plants).

Rotten beam

Rotten beam

Other than the roof, the rest of the building was thankfully free of damp. It was also pleasingly free of rats, insects (other than the million* spiders who made working in the loft a thoroughly revolting task), feral cats, foxes and people, although we did find evidence (in the form of beer bottles, fag packets, a pair of trainers, a removable car stereo faceplate and some classic pornography) that someone had been squatting in the loft before the building was closed.

If you’re that person, I’m afraid we threw your stuff in the bin. Even the porn. Sorry about that.

Also making an early trip to the bin were the accumulated leaves and litter which had blown or otherwise found their way into the building.

There was mains water to the building, at least as far as the stop tap, and electricity, but that got no further than the main fuse, which had been removed. The electrics were grubby and rusty in places. There are no doors; back when it was a toilet, the building was secured at night with iron gates, more recently the board which hosts the mural has doubled as an added layer of security against intruders. The windows are in poor condition, most are damaged or broken and some of the frames are rotten.

So what have we been up to in the last two months?

Well, we’ve had a smashing time. Most of the cubicle walls have been removed to open the space up. The gents’ walls are brick-built, and were dismantled with extreme prejudice by Rich, Alex and Paul. The majority of the ladies’ side walls were a sort of concrete slab reinforced with metal, which turned out to be impossible to shift. They too were broken into smaller chunks for removal.

Toilet cubicles

Before (gents)

Toilet cubicles

Before (ladies)

Pile of bricks and rubble

After (gents)

Open space with rubble

After (ladies)

The disabled toilet cubicles on each side are still in place, until we can decide how we want the new space to be laid out. We’ll need a toilet, and it’s almost certain that it will be in one of those cubicles**

For the same reason, although we’ve stripped out the contents of the cistern room in the middle of the building (toilet cisterns and their associated plumbing, mostly), we’ve left the plumbing for the disabled toilets, until we decide which one we’re keeping and whether we need to replace it.

Cistern room

Before (cistern room)

Plumbing removed

After (cistern room)

The exterior of the building is now a lot cleaner. The ivy has been pulled away from the walls and roof, and the moss and decomposing plants removed. The last few stubborn bits of ivy will hopefully succumb to a good pressure washing.

Building, minus plants

Noticably fewer plants on the outside of the building

Removing moss from the roof

Alex removing the moss

Removing plants from the rear of the building

Andy clearing plants

The plumbing has been mostly cut off from the water main, leaving just a couple of sinks for handwashing. We quickly discovered that the plumbing had become entirely disconnected from the water main; it seems that the stop tap had “fallen off” where it met the pipe from the loft which distributed water around the building. After reconnecting the pipe and stop tap, it also turned out that although the pipes were lagged (and warmed by trace heat tape, but this is no help when the electricity is disconnected…), at least two pipes had burst. And that’s just in the small amount of pipework we reconnected.

Burst pipe

“Oh fiddlesticks”, or similar words to that effect

We contacted the water company to arrange billing. They can’t locate any records of our building. Sadly, we suspect this doesn’t mean we’ll get free water.

On the subject of electricity, Dave had not one, but two electrician friends who were willing to come and help us sort out the power. Special thanks to David Hill who spent a long Sunday afternoon removing the rotten old fusebox and replacing it with a modern, safe consumer unit and isolator switch. Finally, just before the end of March, the power company came out and replaced the ratty old meter with a smart (in every sense) new one. They also fitted an isolator switch which can isolate our isolator switch, for some reason we’re not entirely clear about. At the moment, the only thing wired in is a double socket next to the fusebox, as the rest of the wiring needs to be checked, but it has allowed us to grind away some troublesome metalwork which was posing a trip hazard.

Old meter and fusebox

Before (electricity)

New consumer unit being fitted

During (electricity)

New meter and consumer unit

After (electricity)

So what’s next?

Submit plans for the interior to the council. We’re obliged by our lease to run our ideas past the local council, at least when it comes to knocking holes in their building. We’ll probably end up taking out one central wall to open up the cistern room, and putting a doorway through the other wall. The question is which wall, which represents the biggest challenge we have faced to date:

Get a group of hackers to agree on a layout. Tricky. Proposals here

Strip out the remaining toilet plumbing. There are still water tanks in the loft, sinks where sinks aren’t needed, a water heater which appears to have rusted through, two urinals and their plumbing, and at least one cistern which needs to be removed. Not to mention 8-9 stainless steel toilets in need of a new home, and a number of connections to the sewer which need to be permanently filled.

Knock down the remaining walls which need to be removed. Make a doorway between the two sides of the building.

Fix the roof. This is a big one, and other than a brief word of advice (“rafterectomy”) from a structural engineer who has seen some photos, we’ve not done much to address it yet

Get rid of some waste. We’re accumulating a signficant pile of brick, tiles, cement, plumbing, electrical junk, fixtures and fittings, and so on, to dispose of. Hippo Waste (the company which makes and collects those yellow waste bags) have kindly donated a Hipposkip bag (and collection thereof) to us under their Grants Up For Grabs scheme. Hopefully we’ll be able to fill this up soon and have it taken away.

Can I help?

Yes, please! We particularly need people who can fix the roof, or knock down a wall without taking the whole building with it, or advise on structural matters, or help seal the drains. We’ll also need to remove at least one skip’s worth of bricks at some point. On the materials side, we need paint, plumbing materials, new wiring and trunking, doors, windows, and lots of other things. If you can help, or know of some grants we can apply for (or would like to make one yourself), we’d love to hear from you.

* May only have been a few hundred, mostly dead, but that doesn’t make it any less unenjoyable
** Yes, we’ll build the walls so they reach the ceiling…

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Monthly recap and dates for you diary

April 2nd, 2017

The last couple of months have been very busy for the members of Hitchin Hackspace. Not only were members meeting twice weekly to finish our robot for Pi Wars, but we have also (after an arduous 2.5 years) been given access to the abandoned toilet block on Bancroft.


We’ve already spent many weekends there, tidying, repairing and planning what will be our very own bricks and mortar Hackspace and though we’re still a way off being ready to move in permanently, we’re eager to get there. These are exciting times.


On the 14th of March we celebrated our 5th Birthday. What started as three strangers meeting in The Vic for the first time has turned into a most excellent community with many members who love to make and have fun doing it as a group. We had a good turn out of members old and new, and there was even the traditional Hackspace birthday cheesecake.




The Pi Wars team have spent today at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory for the first day of competition – school teams. They’ve been having a lot of fun meeting the other teams and even had a VIP guest bighak commander – Dr Lucy Rogers, a judge on BBC Robot Wars and the head judge for Pi Wars.

Our team will be competing tomorrow and we are all keen to find out how well they they do.


Dates for your diary

Our weekly Build Nights for April:

  • 3rd
  • 10th
  • 17th
  • 24th

These events will be held in the pavilion on Ransom’s Rec between 7:30pm-10:00pm. Everyone is welcome to come along and see what our group get up to. You can bring a project along if you’d like, or just pop in for a chat. New people are always welcome and we enjoy seeing what projects they may bring.

Our social is on the 11th. This will be held, as always, in The Victoria at the end of Bancroft. This is an informal event and again, everybody is welcome. We start arriving from 7:30pm and it usually goes on until 11:00pm.

We hope you can make it to some of these events and if you know anyone that might be interested, bring them along. The more the merrier!



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Piwars 3.0 Deadline Looms

March 28th, 2017

The final few days are here!

Obviously all competitors will have completely finished their robots and will have dialed in the settings to perfectly tune each task to run a peak performance….yer right.

Last year we ran so close to the deadline that we were not just tweaking challenge code on the competition day, we were completely writing some challenges from scratch. This year we made a conscious effort to start early so that wouldn’t be required. So far that hasn’t gone exactly to plan. We started early, for sure, but got bogged down in the details and minutia that little things like getting a robot driving early on and thus allow for driving practice seemed to fall by the wayside.

In fairness, last year we went all out in the last 2 weeks. So much so that it caused a few “issues” with home lives, requiring the use of many, many ‘browny points’. This year has been a definite improvement. So far we have managed to not need the last mad dash effort, but it’s going to be close still.

We have made the strip board version of the breadboard electronics. It’s pretty simple as it is mostly just I2C pins with a small amount of magic components that make our lovely laser sensors work beautifully. The soldered board being significantly smaller than the breadboard, which will make the bot a little neater.

We’ve been playing with LED’s. This was one simple test to make TITO2 “shine” above the rest. As it’s not part of the basic challenge, we’ve left it a little late. However, Brian has come up with some “bright” ideas…really sorry, could’t resist.

Over the last few days/hours we have got the line following sensor working and mostly coded up to work. Big improvement from last year as we wrote that challenge off near the end. It’s taken quite some research to get a sensor that can read the laminated sample provided. With some testing, playing, research and purchasing power, we now have a sensor board that, although doesn’t work directly with the Raspberry Pi, does via an arduino nano. It’s a bit annoying as if it wasn’t for this, the only real electronic device other than ESC’s was the Pi Zero W. But, it’s only on the sensor mount, and the sensor was a bit of a pain to get information/code samples from the manufacturer that I’m still classing it as a win. I should stress, although the sensor picks up the printed line on the vinyl print, the readings are much closer to white than the black electrical tape readings. It may still prove in tougher testing to be less reliable.

Anyway, I hope you all are progressing well. There maybe one or two more posts before the deadline, depending on time, energy and sleep requirements.


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Piwars 3.0 ‘T Minus’ Countdown Continues

March 25th, 2017

Starting to feel the time pressure a little now…

TITO 2 has progressed from early prototype into a the early stages of final bot. This means that the laser cut chassis has been altered to include all known mounting points for the electronics as well as shaped for the b-e-a-utiful 3D printed clam shell bodywork.

What this has meant is that the motors, battery, wiring harness, pi, connected sensors and all other items have been meticulously and carefully transferred from the prototype to the release candidate chassis. The result of that is the motors are now obviously backwards, the left distance sensor is now the front…well, you can see where I’m going. The motors being wired backwards was actually a blessing in disguise as it wasn’t noticed till then that RC mode was driving backwards (sad face).

So, RC mode now correctly drives forwards, but our autonomous modes all flip out. It should be a simple matter of code changes, but it’s all time that we know we have little of.

I2C OLED screen

The team are working tirelessly to get the robot ‘fighting fit’, so Paul has taken the I2C circuit design and strip board away to solder up a proper (non breadboard) I2C connector/extender for all the I2C sensors and screens that all need to connect to the single set of 4 pins on the Pi. Martin, Rob and I have gone to sit in a dark room and think about what needs to be done on the code base to progress the project ready for yet more driving tests and tweaks on Monday. Paul also knocked up a laser cut rig for the golf challenge, so that will need to be assembled and ‘electrified’ ready for testing on Monday as well.

Mark has been busy in the evenings designing 3D objects to be printed that will safely hold our sensors so that the electronics don’t fall off or get damaged by inevitable contact with the walls.

Brian has volunteered to take charge of the line following sensor. This is an area that has hit problems. We noticed that the line detection was sketchy at best when using the line sample kindly provided by Piwars Mike and Tim. We think the sample has been laminated with some sort of IR reflective coating (probably to stop the course/banner from fading in sunlight). This means that our sensors (and apparently other groups sensors as well) have struggled to see the change in colour as they only see a reflection. The effect is similar to the 2 way mirrors seen in films where several ‘usual suspects’ line up in a well lit room. They cannot see the people judging them in the dark room the other side of a pane of glass, mainly due to their rooms reflections overpowering the small amount of light coming from the dark room. To try and overcome this issue we have been playing with all kinds of techniques like blocking out all external light sources, changing sensor distance from surface, angle of sensor to surface, disabling onboard IR LEDs and using an external IR source at a significant angle difference. None of these bore much fruit and neither did the following test of seeing if out IR sensors were sensitive to visible light. Good news, they are…bad news, not enough (again, sad face). Our final tests was to use black electrical tape over the top of the sample line. This instantly was a solid detection using the standard sensors in the standard manor. Our options are rapidly disappearing. Two remain, use a different senor to detect the line (probably the pi camera currently being tested by Brian), or kindly request Piwars overlay black electrical tape onto the course.

Anyway, to quote a good film ‘Keep moving forward’ (without googling, you have 3 guesses which film).

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Piwars 3.0 ‘T Minus’ Countdown Begins

March 22nd, 2017

I recently received the email from Piwars reminding us that the end is in sight. “Thanks Mike and Tim!”

I don’t know about the rest of you, but it certainly gave me that same warm fuzzy feeling inside that you get when you wake up knowing you are late for work!

Where are we with our robot? Well, that is a very good question. We meet as a group at least twice a week to push the project forward, but we also use our evenings and weekends as well. Although we did get stuck with EM interference issues for a good couple of weeks, we have now recovered from that and made a huge surge forward with getting TITO 2 ready for the impending challenges.

  • TITO 2 , although still in prototype mode, has now successfully and repeatedly navigated our mock up of the Minimal Maze. Seeing it do this really helped me believe that we will get it ready in time.
  • We also have tested TITO 2 on the straight line speed track, however not at full speed…not even close. I’d like to get a few more runs at this to dial in our tweaks so that it doesn’t touch the sides.
  • Our RC mode has also been tested (to the dismay of Mark who very kindly spent at least 40 hours 3D printing the shell). We know that it at least works in this configuration, but there are some significant improvements to be made, as the general consensus is that it is “a little twitchy”. That and the tank steering mode has made it nearly undriveable to all but experts (ie Mark).
  • Line following has hit a snag. Our sensor board is clearly suffering an injury of some sort and so we may have to fall back to OpenCV and a Pi Camera. As we have little to no code for this yet, I’m not even slightly concerned………
  • Slightly Deranged Golf is basically RC mode with a ball moving attachment. This attachment is yet to be added to the bot but has been tested in prototype stage.
  • Pi Noon is again basically RC mode. Once we’ve sorted the steering and throttle issues, I’m sure we will have this pegged!
  • Skittles. This one always fills me with joy. We have made progress and have a prototype that will actually do this. I mean, it’s not tested in any way shape or form. But surely that’s just minor details?

Here are a few short videos showing off what we have accomplished so far.

So, after checking back in with you I hope you can see that we are moving forward!

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Piwars 3.0, back from radio silence

March 3rd, 2017

Sorry for no posts recently, it appears life can get really busy, really quickly!

Since the last post we haven’t been idle though. The prototype bot is now drive-able both remotely and autonomously using distance sensors. We have a short video of it following a wall (albeit very slowly), but it is doing it!


Whilst busily working away testing sensors, we encountered a problem…and I quote Martin

“After some initial success with autonomously driving our test chassis using an old analog distance sensor, we set about upgrading to some snazzier laser distance sensors with much better resolution, talking to the Pi Zero over I2C.  In the test setup the sensors dutifully reported the distance they measured, but as soon as we tried to actually drive the robot the sensors started to reset themselves, losing their bus addresses and returning garbage values. As the problems started when we started turning the motors, the suspected causes were either noise on the power supply, or radio interference.  

We had previously had some problems with these sensors which turned out to be a loose ground pin, but tightening up all the connections and adding a capacitor to smooth the power supply didn’t help.  We then put together a test setup with a Pi reading values from the distance sensor, and a motor wired up to a separate battery through a switch so it would have no effect on the Pi’s power supply. Sure enough, a quick spin of the motor was enough to disrupt the I2C sensor, so radio interference had to be the culprit.
We brought out the oscilloscope, and probed the XSHUT (or “don’t turn off”) pin on the sensor. This pin has to be held at 2.8V for normal running, as bringing it to ground will reset the sensor. There was a little noise on the signal when the sensor was running which was likely to be crosstalk from the signal wires, but at 0.1V it wasn’t significant enough to cause problems. As soon as we ran the motor, however, the scope lit up like the proverbial Christmas tree.  The wire from the XSHUT pin to the Pi’s GPIO header was acting as an antenna, picking up interference from the motor next to it and triggering the sensor’s reset function. 
We tried a couple of different changes to keep the signal under control, with the eventual winner proving to be a large capacitor that would soak up the interference and banish the electrical gremlins.  With the capacitor in place, the oscilloscope showed the XSHUT signal staying calm, and the motor could happily spin away right next to the sensor with no interference issues.  Result: four happy roboteers :)”
Interference before and after
Above is a screenshot of the oscilloscope before and after. Note how the before (upper half) is looking all over the place, and how it has been resolved (mostly) in the lower half of the image to a single static line.
Not only have we managed to resolve a very problematic issue, we have done away with most of the additional controller boards. We moved to a PiZero as was always the intention, but we have dropped the requirement for an arduino as we are now using digital I2C distance sensors. Not only that but we then decided to use a Zero4U board to allow both wifi and bluetooth dongles without a huge USB hub plugged into the USB OTG port. That said, the Pi foundation has just released the Pi Zero W that has those two components on-board…so we dropped the Zero4U from the requirements as well. Other than ESC’s, sensors, battery/regulator and the voltage monitor, the whole thing is run from one single Pi Zero W at the moment.
If you watch the video linked above, you will see exactly how much the hardware has been reduced. Its all coming together now!

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Piwars 3.0 Day 4

February 7th, 2017

Hi World,

I promised proper coding and possibly some testing…well I may have to disappoint. Coding has happened (although as some of it’s mine I wouldn’t class it as proper) but we have only limited testing so far, no vehicle movement, just individual components.

We have been attempting to find a secure way to attach our wheels to the motors. Last year we 3D printed wheel hubs and they worked, mostly. In last years testing they proved reliable, reliable to fall off that is, so we resorted to glue which meant minimal ability to replace motors or wheels should something break….which it did on the day (rear left gearbox on motor was having huge issues). So this year, something new.

Aluminium HubThe silver round metal object is our lovely new aluminium wheel hub. Its tiny which is both good and bad. The centre hole is 4mm and fits our motors beautifully, however the grub nut and 4x bolt holes are just too small for the forces we expect to shove through it. Not mentioning that the ebay special has an american standard screw thread which none of us can find in our spares boxes.

So, onto the work that needs to be done. We need to re-tap them, but obviously we can’t keep the hole the same size as the new thread would be so weak against the old thread. So we are upsizing them from M3 (ish) to M4. This will give (hopefully) a stronger grip for the bolts that will be holding the wheels onto the motor shaft.

Beautiful 3D Printed HubAnd the result, 4x colour coded allen cap head bolts for added stealth. I say stealth, amusingly the first test 3D print of the lovely new wheel hub (designed by Mark last year and lovingly modified by Paul for the new bolts) was done in a blue ABS plastic as that was what was still in the 3D printer. Group members have already shown a liking to the blue/black combo, so we will have to wait and see which colour scheme we end up with.

Mark Working Hard

Mark in the photo to the left can be seen working hard (as he usually does) re-tapping the aluminium shaft blocks, and the rest of us can just be seen performing all kinds of ungodly wiring and coding stuff. The really really badly tangled wiring mess in front of Mark is my desk, but they always say “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”.

So, coding. There is currently two of us working on this task and we are taking last years code as an example of what and what not to do. The on-board hardware has changed significantly to reduce size and weight so a lot of the old code is no longer useful as it was for talking to devices no longer present.

Python Module Sketch

This little sketch is our first stab at trying to organise what talks to what and how many modules we will need. Safety is always paramount with us, so we will be utilising last years method of always having something listening to the controller so the motors can be put into neutral at ANY point, no matter what its doing. This will probably be done with the launcher thread running permanently in the background always listening for a specific button press and locking our any other modules access to the motors if needs be.

And we then segway into course construction:

Brian and Johnny Building Course

What you can see here is Brian and Johnny thinking way too hard about the course measurements. They are perfectionists (which I love) but are slightly stifled by the lack of measuring tools. They have found an old school ruler in one of the cupboards and are using that to measure and cut wood for the minimal maze task. Rather them than me.

So with course prep going on and lots of wiring and coding progressing, I REALLY want to see a vehicle test in the next week. I think we can do it (if I pull my thumb out). I know it will boost the teams confidence if the thing actually moves in a controllable way.

Watch this space…..

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