SciTech

‘Brainlink’ increases robot functionality

Brainlink, a device that enables its users to add additional functionality to robots and other electronic devices, uses infrared signals to communicate with its users.  (credit: Courtesy of Tom Lauwers ) Brainlink, a device that enables its users to add additional functionality to robots and other electronic devices, uses infrared signals to communicate with its users. (credit: Courtesy of Tom Lauwers )

Carnegie Mellon spinoff BirdBrain Technologies, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, recently created Brainlink, a device that enables its users to add additional functionality to small robots and other electronics.

Tom Lauwers hails from both development teams, as he is the founder of BirdBrain Technologies as well as a 2010 graduate of the Robotics Institute. He led the development of the Brainlink system, which is housed in a white, triangular chassis that fits in the palm of one’s hand and only weighs about three ounces.

But the system’s small size is by no means an indicator of the range of its capabilities.

“The Brainlink can learn the infrared signals from a robot’s remote control.... It can, on command, replay those signals,” Lauwers said. “It can also store those signals, or you can store the signals on a computer. Basically, storage is unlimited.”

Data storage is far from the only “unlimited” property the Brainlink system has to offer. The unit’s intuitive programmable interface, paired with its extensible, open-source Java API developed by Lauwers and his team, allows its users to create multiple programs for interfacing with the host robot. The system also comes with a database pre-populated with signal data for popular robots, but Lauwers ran through an example of how one would use the Brainlink with a device absent from the database.

“You could take the remote that comes with the robot,” Lauwers said. “You would hit the forward button on the remote, and point it at the Brainlink, while running an infrared signal analyzer program on your computer. The signal would get captured and stored, and then you could write a program that tells the Brainlink to replay that signal. So now if you put the Brainlink on your robot and point the Brainlink infrared LED at the infrared receiver on your robot, you could make the robot go forward by using the computer program.”

The robot’s other abilities can be programmed into the Brainlink in a similar manner. If the sensors provided by that particular robot aren’t enough, the Brainlink unit also incorporates an accelerometer and a light sensor that can help the robot react to different types of accelerations or ambient light levels. Several auxiliary ports for connecting other types of sensors, like proximity sensors or GPS receivers, are also provided.

Perhaps the system’s most appealing feature is its Android API, which allows developers to create new Brainlink Android applications or export existing Brainlink desktop applications to the Android platform. These applications can then send commands over Bluetooth to the Brainlink unit, which in turn relays them via infrared signal to its host robot. Tutorials detailing how to establish this Bluetooth connection, program the Brainlink, and even customize its onboard firmware are available on the system’s website, brainlinksystem.com.

Lauwers emphasized that, while the Brainlink system can easily be picked up by any typical robotics hobbyist, its true aim is to inspire and cultivate a desire for robotics in students interested in the field.

“We ran a small pilot where we had 16 high school students try out our prototype,” Lauwers said. “One kid just amazed me. He made a server to control his TV from anywhere. The server was running on a computer that was connected to Brainlink, so he could talk to the server from any other internet-connected computer or phone, and use it to turn off his TV ... that was pretty memorable.”

Because the Brainlink system interfaces with its host devices via infrared, it can also be programmed to work with a television or DVD player, although Lauwers warned that “it’s not meant as a substitute for an off-the-shelf universal remote control.”

Lauwers also mentioned a potential project involving controlling robots with Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing device via Brainlink.

According to a Carnegie Mellon press release, Brainlink was funded in part by a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Science Foundation. BirdBrain Technologies is also working on another project called “Hummingbird,” aimed at middle school students, that will enable them to build robots with typical arts and crafts materials. The project is slated to be released in March.