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Introduction to Autonomous Robotics

This program demonstrates how to make a robot wander around on its own. It is not very sophisticated and it still has some serious problems, but it illustrates several key points and is fun to play with (at least for a little while). Note that NO hardware is required!

IMPORTANT NOTE: This program requires the Maze Simulator. Also, the manifest specifies my modified version of the Simple Dashboard, although this can easily be changed to use the one included in the MSRS distribution.

Background

Microsoft provides a set of Tutorials for MSRS. (They are installed as part of the package and are also available online.) However, the first couple of the Robotics Tutorials require you to have a real robot. This is a stumbling block for many people, not just because of the cost of a robot but because playing with real hardware is difficult and time consuming. (Believe me, I've been doing it for years. I will take a simulator instead of a real robot any day!)

So my concept was to take these Tutorials and turn them into something that can be used "out of the box". What you have here is the completed code for what I call the "Introduction to Autonomous Robotics". I will write a Tutorial to go with this code when I have the time, but in the meantime I believe that "learning by doing" is a much more instructive approach than reading a bunch of web pages. Download the code and try it out!

What it does

Basically, the program controls a simulated robot (either a Pioneer 3DX or a Lego NXT) to make it wander around in a maze-like world. It uses the Simulator that comes as part of MSRS as well as the Dashboard which can be used to control the simulated robot either with the mouse or a joystick.

There are many different issues that need to be addressed when you start to build a robotics system. This example only uses the simplest of sensors -- a bump sensor -- which is basically a switch that is triggered when the robot bumps into something. The simulated robot has two of these: one at the front and one at the back. These are called Contact Sensors, for obvious reasons.

One of the problems with a bump sensor is that by the time the robot has bumped into something, it is too late! If you play with this program for long enough, you will eventually see the robot knock itself over, or perhaps get stuck up against a wall with it's wheels off the ground. These are not good outcomes for a robot that is supposed to be wandering. And they could cause physical damage to the robot or the object it bumps into, which could even be a person!

Obviously, we would like the robot to "see" obstacles BEFORE it runs into them. This is where sensors like Sonar and Infra-red detectors come in. These are called Range Sensors because they return a value which indicates how far away the nearest obstacle is. Unfortunately, they are not 100% reliable for reasons that we will see later. However, they are non-contact sensors which is much safer for the robot and it's human operators.

In this simulation, there is a Laser Range Finder mounted on the top of the Pioneer robot. The next program in this series will make use of a Range Sensor for improved wandering.

NOTE: Version 1.5 of MSRS does not support Sonar sensors in the simulation. Therefore it is not possible to use a Lego robot with a Sonar range sensor.

Taking this one step further, the ideal would be to use a camera and really see what is there. There is a simulated web camera in MSRS, so you can see what the robot sees. Making the robot navigate and build a map using only vision is my area of research, and it is a very complex task.

NOTE: Currently, the Pioneer simulation has a camera mounted on top of the robot. However, I have not added a camera to the Lego robot. This is left as an exercise.

Available Resources

Documentation

A Documentation page is provided with instructions on how to run the program. All of these web pages are included in the ZIP file so you don't have to go back to the Internet all the time. You should also read the readme.txt which is included in the ZIP file.

Tutorial

There is a very simple Tutorial for the Intro program. You can use the software without having to make any changes to the code.

You should also try the Microsoft Robotics Tutorials on which this program is based. The Tutorial page explains how to do this using the Simulator instead of a real robot.

Software

This software might be developed further. The following version is available now:
QUT MSRS Apps 18-Jul-2007
This version was built with the version 1.5 release of MSRS.
Please read the readme.txt for installation instructions.

You will also need the Maze Simulator program which is required to run the Intro because it creates the walls.

The manifest that is supplied in the ZIP file uses the Dashboard which is a modified version of the Simple Dashboard that is supplied with MSRS. You do not have to use my version of the Dashboard and you can change the manifest to use the Microsoft version if you wish. (See the comments in the manifest.) However, my version has additional features that you might find useful.

Obviously, you need to Microsoft Robotics Studio software as well.

Legal Stuff

This code is based very heavily on the Microsoft MSRS Tutorials and feedback from the MSRS developers. It is not warranted to be suitable for any purpose other than playing around with MSRS. There are known bugs, and it is not intended as a definitive example of how to write robotic systems.

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