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The Lunatic Diaries

Observations, Status Reports, Inspirational Messages, etc. about the MRI Pi In The Sky team in the Moonbots 2011 Competition.

Stardate 2011.09.03 (Saturday) - Globetrotters Award

posted Sep 12, 2011, 5:36 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Sep 15, 2011, 3:31 PM ]

On Thursday, we found out that we had won the Globetrotters Award in the 2011 Moonbots Competition.  WOW!  Rohit was deliriously happy when he heard this news.  This was an appropriate reward for the team since they had indeed gallivanted all over the world.  After a while, he began to wear a dreamy expression and started running into objects.  Rohit even started imagining that he had won a Globetrotters award before, but for the life of him, could not remember where.  To quote Yogi Berra, it felt like deja vu all over again.  To celebrate the award, he created a Scratch animation, which we expanded into a 4-minute video, celebrating the Moonbots journey.  Thank you everyone!

Pi In The Sky's Inspiring Journey Through The 2011 Moonbots Competition

Farewell, earthlings.  We may be out of radio contact forever . . . unless you decide to hold another Moonbots competition.  In that case, please let us know by sending the usual signal, like having that silly cow jump over the moon, again . . . and we will be back.  We'd never miss a Moonbots competition.  It is way too much fun!

The Cat Came Back

Stardate 2011.08.30 (Tuesday) - Pi & POEL's European Vacation

posted Sep 12, 2011, 12:59 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Sep 13, 2011, 1:15 PM ]

Whew!  Now that the work is done, it is time for a vacation.  Gabriel went back to his summer life on the beach, Minyoung went to the United Kingdom, as planned, and Rohit stopped in Europe on his way back from India.  However hard he tried, Rohit just could not escape Pi and POEL in his travels - see the pictures below.  Help!  Is this a Moonbots nightmare or is he auditioning for Groundhog day?

Heidelberg's Student Prison (pictured above)

From the time of its foundation, Heidelberg University exercised legal jurisdiction over its students.  Thus, infringements against regulations goveming the code of conduct of its members could not be punished by the city authorities.  If a constable of the law apprehended a student for a supposed offence, the culprit had first to show documentation proving his affiliation to the University and then provide his address.  The incident would then be reported to the University.  After receiving a summons and attending a hearing, the student would be sentenced according to the severity of his misdemeanour.  Punishment usually took the form of confinement in the University jail for a period ranging from 24 hours to 4 weeks.  As the 19th century progressed, 'doing time' in the Student Prison (Karzer) became less and less onerous; indeed, it became something of a matter of honour for most students to have experienced at least one stint of prison life while studying in Heidelberg.  The most common offences included disturbing the peace at night by loud singing in the city lanes, inappropriate behaviour in public as a result of inebriation, and participation in illegal fencing duels.  Budding academics seemingly had a particular foible for nocturnal raids aimed at releasing the pigs and piglets penned up in the Old City and then driving the squealing animals through the streets.  Students could easily end up in the Karzer if they insulted a uniformed local constable (called an Amtmann in those days) proudly walking his beat.  Those unwise enough to knock his cap off with a stick or to enjoy a good laugh at his expense soon found themselves behind bars.  Such misdeeds were considered to amount to obstructing a police officer during the course of his duty and were punished with 4 weeks of incarceration.

The Student Prison occupied the top floor of the Beadle's House from 1712 until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.  Before this, it had been situated below the staircase in the Old University Building, but this cold and damp location proved unsuitable owing to the potential risks to the inmates' health.  On the storey housing the prison, there was no water supply (this had to be brought from the well in the courtyard) or cooking facilities.  On the first 2 days of confinement, prisoners were given only bread and water.  After this, students could have food brought in from outside, and even beer, if they so desired.  The cells were provided with hard beds with straw mattresses.  Internees had to pay for the use of pillows, covers and sheets, or bring their own.  The only other furniture comprised a couple of tables and stools.  While 'inside', the students whiled away the time by playing cards, and many carved their names on tables.  They could freely visit fellow-convicts in neighbouring cells and even use a connecting door to enter the University to attend lectures.  However, they were forbidden to leave the building.  The detainees spent much of their time decorating the prison's stairway as well as the walls and ceilings of their cells.  Their favourite subjects were silhouette profiles of fellow-students, the coats-of-arms and monograms of their student associations (most students were members of such organizations at this time), the date of their confinement and various humorous comments.  For black 'paint', they used candle-smuts or soot from the fireplace.  As time went on, they brought paints in with them.  In addition, photographs showing prisoners in the uniform of their student associatlon were inserted into doors under glass.  The students' names for the various rooms included Solitude, Palais Royale and Sanssouci.  The 'King's Throne' was the fanciful name of the smallest and most private room in the prison.

Stardate 2011.08.09 (Monday) - Presentation to the Vana Vani School Robotics Club in Chennai

posted Aug 17, 2011, 7:01 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Aug 19, 2011, 7:29 AM ]

[Rohit’s Report]

Today Mr. Narayanan and I went to the Vana Vani School, also on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai.  It is also a K-12 school.  The Vana Vani School has a robotics club that starts in fifth grade and goes up to tenth grade.  They have been using the yellow RCX robotics system (it is almost 10 years old).  The lead teacher, Mrs. Lalitha Bhaskaran, told us that the team had recently entered an Indian competition where they came in second place.

A few days earlier, the Vice-Principal, Mr. Xavier Sagayanathan, who also teaches computer science to high schoolers, had offered to let us address the entire sixth, seventh and eighth grade classes in the central courtyard of the school.  However, they did not have an auditorium of the proper size with AV equipment available.  Since we wanted to give the children something tangible to look at, and not just a speech, he suggested that it might be better to do a presentation to the children in the robotics club at the school.  So we met with about 50 children in grades 5-8.  The high schoolers in the robotics club could not attend because of a time conflict with their quarterly exams.

The students were very interested in the presentation even though they were not new to robotics.   After a brief overview, we had an interactive discussion with them about all the different skills needed for doing a good job in a competition.  We also showed them our rover and a few sample program in which it detected and climbed a ridge and picked up a toy cat I had borrowed from my aunt in Chennai (to substitute for the Water Ice and Helium 3 models, which we had forgotten to bring).

The kids asked a lot of questions about the way our robot worked.  As before, we invited them to write a short essay (200-300 words) on one of three topics along with a token prize:

1.      How can robots help India’s space program?

2.      If you could design a robot, what would your robot do, and how?

3.  How can robots make your home life easier?

The children seemed eager to participate.  Overall we felt that the kids we met in both these schools were really smart and interested in science, technology, engineering and math.  That should not be so surprising since they are surrounded by some of India’s best engineers on the IIT campus.

We are going to work over the next year to create a local support system for the students to help them explore the world of robotics competitions.  Hopefully we will see some Vana Vani students in next year’s Moonbots competition.

Pi In The Sky Outreach @ the Vana Vani School at IIT Madras

Stardate 2011.08.07 (Sunday) - Gabriel attends 2011 BrickFair near Washington, DC

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:58 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Aug 19, 2011, 12:05 PM ]

Today Gabriel held a Moonbots outreach event at the Brickfair Festival at the Dulles Expo Center near Washington DC.  Here is his report.

The Dulles Brickfair is a huge Lego event held annually that draws tens of thousands of Lego fans.  I  couldn't think of a better place to do an outreach!   When I showed up early to set up his display, there was a line that wrapped all around the parking lot!  I set up at the NASA booth along with Mrs Jaratt and her son, Colin.  The people at the NASA area focused on space and robotics, so it was a perfect location for the outreach effort.

I talked to hundreds of people about robotics, science and the Moonbots competition.   I can’t believe how many kids (AND ADULTS!) were really interested to learn about Moonbots and the robot that the Pi in the Sky team created for the competition.  I showed them the different pieces of an NXT Mindstorm and how they worked.  I think a lot of kids were excited to try building robots!

A lot of people asked where they could learn more about robotics, so I told them about after school programs, camps and websites to visit.

I also got to walk around the Lego displays at Brickfair and I saw some awe inspiring ideas, such as Colin’s Lego fort and boat.  I also saw astronaut equipment worn by Neil Armstrong!  My dad bought me a discontinued Mars Mission Lego set and brick arms.  It was really fun to talk with people about Legos and robots.  A lot of the kids that I talked with said that they were going to try making robots!

Gabriel at the 2011 BrickFair near Washington DC

Stardate 2011.08.06 (Saturday) - School Presentation to Kendriya Vidyalaya at IIT Chennai

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:41 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Aug 19, 2011, 12:29 PM ]

Today, Rohit and Mr. Narayanan went to the Kendriya Vidyalaya School on the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Madras ( now Chennai), India.  IIT Madras, where Mr. Narayanan (Rohit’s dad) studied, is one of the best engineering colleges in India.  He still has lots of friends on campus.  The IIT at Madras was set up with German assistance at the dawn of India’s independence, just over 50 years ago.  The Kendriya Vidyalaya (which means “Central School” in Hindi) is a one of two schools within the 700-acre IIT campus, principally for the children of the IIT faculty and staff. 

In preparation for the visit, we prepared some posters and a PowerPoint presentation at a local print shop.  Here is Rohit’s report on the visit.

We addressed an assembly of about 250 fifth and sixth graders in the school’s auditorium.  It had stadium-style seating that allowed everyone a perfect view.  We first told them about what robotics is and why they should try it.  You can see our PowerPoint presentation here.

The students got very interested when we showed them the Pi in the Sky video.  We had taken our rover to the assembly.  One of the students asked us if it worked, and so we gave them a small demo.  Until then, all the kids had been sitting quietly in their seats.  But once the rover started moving, the children’s faces lit up and many got up from their seats in excitement. The Principal asked us to pause the presentation and several teachers worked to get the children back to their seats.  We were happy at the children’s level of interest in robotics.  We hope they try out the Moonbots or FLL competitions next year.

We showed them our rover design on Lego Digital Designer.  At the end, when the presentation was almost finished, we invited them to write a short essay (200-300 words) on one of three topics:

1.      How can robots help India’s space program?

2.      If you could design a robot, what would your robot do, and how?

3.      How can robots make your home life easier?

We gave the school a couple of small Lego kits (the Lego Space Moon Buggy 3365) for the two best essays on any one of three topics.  We hope they send us their essays so that we can post them on our team web site.

It was a very interesting experience.  Many of the kids were really interested and came and asked us how they could keep in touch.  We gave them our e-mail addresses.  The teachers said that the students had never listened so quietly to any presentation and that our outreach event came at a very good time as the school was just planning to think about how to make their science education more practical.  The teachers also said that they were very impressed by Rohit’s ability to address a large audience and the Principal told the kids that she and the teachers would like them to be more like Rohit and speak with a lot of confidence.

Finally, we got called to the Principal’s office!  This time for praise, not punishment.  She offered us a cup of tea and we took her picture.

The teachers said they would put up our Moonbots and Pi in the Sky posters in each of the three fifth and sixth grade classes.  We had two copies of each in hand.  We will take them one more set on Monday when we go back to the other school on the IIT Madras campus.

Pi In The Sky Outreach @ the Kendriya Vidyalaya School at IIT Madras

Stardate 2011.08.02 (Tuesday) - The Outreach Begins

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:38 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Aug 19, 2011, 12:20 PM ]

Today, Rohit and Mr. Narayanan went to ISRO (Indian Space Research Organization) satellite center in Bengaluru, India (formerly Bangalore).  The ISRO people were really nice and gave us a tour of the Satellite Center even though this is usually not open to the general public.  We think we got this special treatment because we explained to them that we were kids interested in science and technology and were one of the finalists in the Google-LEGO Moonbots competition.

We got a tour of the clean room where satellites are assembled and tested prior to launch.  We learned that the next ISRO satellite was to be launched in September and is called Megha-Tropiques (what a lovely coincidence, Megha is both Rohit’s little sister and the team mascot).  Nicolas Sarcozy, the President of France, had visited the same ISRO facility in December 2010 to see Megha-Tropiques, as seen in the picture below.  You can learn more about the Megha-Tropiques project here.
Nicolas Sarkozy Visiting ISRO

We also got a guided tour of the ISRO museum, which had scale models of all Indian satellites launched to date – it is a mini-version of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC. 

We learnt a lot about the design, construction and testing of satellites from the ISRO visit.  We suggested that they develop a child-friendly portal to inspire children to dream about and learn about science.  Bangalore is the perfect setting to promote satellite technology and Indian software/web-development expertise.

We also got the address of ISRO contacts who could help us promote science and technology to young kids in India and also received, compliments of the ISRO Director, a collection of posters and promotional materials Rohit will be sharing with my team mates (several people have offered to make posters for us, but this is the first space poster Rohit has actually got).

Stardate 2011.07.26 (Tuesday) - The Final Evaluation!

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:35 PM by Anant Narayanan

Today, was the final test.  The Narayanan family is leaving town tomorrow for a long visit to India and Europe (both work and vacation).  We connected up with the Google Moonbots representative (James) via Skype at about 1:30 in the afternoon.  We also showed him our LDD design via Skype screensharing.  We told him about our blog and our planned outreach efforts and then he asked to see our rover in action. 

We put the computer on top of a ladder so that he could get a good view.  He said it was the best view he had had yet (it was his first one, so we are really glad it was his best!).  We were happy we were able to share our work with the judges before the Narayanans left town even though we ended up with less time than expected to prepare for Phase II.

The team members also liked the judge’s suggestion that we come back in September and work on the rover missions again.   All the team members will continue to work on the blogging and outreach parts of the project in different parts of the galaxy – India, England, the US, Infinity and beyond - through the rest of the summer.

We spent the rest of the afternoon uploading and organizing videos and saving and annotating the rover programs, since the coach was not sure that the Internet connection speeds in India would be adequate for video uploading.

Stardate 2011.07.25 (Monday) - The Final Push!

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:34 PM by Anant Narayanan

We were too busy working on our crises to notice that the clock is about to run out on us!

Our last full day of work, and it was not going well.  The dismount from the lander base was the only art that worked consistently.  The robot did not climb the ridge at the same spot.  The ultrasonic sensors which normally work well, gave erratic results.  The side mounted sensor, which works so well on a tribot, did not help our quad-track robot follow the panel walls.  Clearly it needed to be repositioned to be closer to the lead wheel, but we did not have enough time to tear the robot apart and rebuild it, and so we decided to try a different programming-based technique to compensate for suboptimal sensor positioning.

Everyone was discouraged.  We had not made much progress in the past two days!

In the evening, all parents pitched in to assemble a plastic pipe frame around the competition table to support the three side panels.  The setup looked grand.  It just needed a cooperative rover.

Finally, we had heard back from the Moonbots Administrators.  Fortunately for us, they were available to review us tomorrow.  While we were nowhere near where we wanted to be, everyone wanted to take the final evaluation/test, if at least to validate their efforts.

Stardate 2011.07.23 (Saturday) - More Programming!

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:32 PM by Anant Narayanan

We ran a number of tests to confirm that the rover could climb ridges and the crater consistently, and that its camera mount could take pictures of the lunar artifacts.  Point to point navigation was somewhat inconsistent, because of a combination of factors – the terrain nubs, the battery voltage, and the flex in the rubber tracks.  We needed more sensors to navigate the terrain, but we were almost out of time.  Maybe we could use a gyro sensor to make a “GPS” for the Moonbots terrain - an idea for next year.  We decided to use a third side-mounted ultrasonic sensor to drive a wall follower. 

Minyoung and Rohit completed the LDD model of the final robot design.  Everyone enjoyed blowing the model apart in space using the LDD feature.  Rohit took a lot of screenshots of the exploding rover.

In the evening, we glued backdrops on quarter-inch MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) panelboard in preparation for the final test/evaluation.  We also formally requested the Moonbots administrators for an early evaluation.  We also contacted Team Indus, another of the GLXP teams that we had liked, with a view to organizing an outreach event in India during our visit there.

Stardate 2011.07.22 (Friday) - Video Integration and Testing!

posted Aug 17, 2011, 6:26 PM by Anant Narayanan   [ updated Aug 17, 2011, 6:31 PM ]

Everyone loves the remote control of the compact video-still camera.  As the programming progressed, the team yells out Lights!, Camera!, and Action! in sequence.  First the rover is positioned on the landing base with the ramp up.  As soon as the rover is properly aligned, the video camera is next switched on at “Lights!”  The recording is started upon “Camera!”, using the camera remote control.  At “Action!”, the orange button is pressed to get the rover rolling.

Gabriel had to leave early to get back to Ocean City for the weekend.  Before he left, we went to the Churchill Road School and the Potomac School to get some team pictures in their orange NASA astronaut suits.  You can see them here.

Minyoung and Rohit continued work after Gabriel left.  We added two ultrasonic sensors – one mounted high to detect only walls, and another mounted low to detect ridges as well.

The team used paper work sheets to keep track of the program modifications and also started annotating them using the NXT programming interface.

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