It's a fairly menacing sight, an aluminum robot sporting big tank treads -- that is, until you watch one of its creators do a handstand on top of the thing in a pair of cargo shorts. And really, while the 'bot wouldn't look too out of place with a small machine gun strapped to its front, its intentions are peaceful, seeking to extend the WiFi connections to hazardous places lacking in network infrastructure. We first heard about the project last week, when the team of computer and electrical engineers at Northeastern University that created it first revealed their work to the media. A visit this weekend to our favorite Somerville, Massachusetts-based hackerspace provided the opportunity to check out the beast in-person and discuss the project with a couple of its creators.
After the limited machining resources at Northeastern failed to meet their needs, the students found a home at Artisan's Asylum, where they learned the skills necessary to put together this ambitious project, utilizing classes and the metal shop provided by the space. The result is an impressive sight, a robot capable of climbing stairs and supporting the weight of two adult humans -- the latter of which they happily demonstrated for us in a yet-to-be-occupied new wing at Artisan's. The former, on the other hand, we were unable to see, sadly, as the internals were mostly gutted at the moment on the ever-evolving project. Team member Dan Landers, was more than happy to discuss the project, standing next to a pile of water jet-cut steel pieces that will form the first leg of giant hexapod Stompy, a project on which Landers is also a participant.
The WiFi-Extending Robot has nobler intentions than its object-crushing giant insect cousin, sporting slots on it its back for repeater cases on metal skies that can be dropped behind it with a flick of a switch, leaving a temporary WiFi network in its wake. Inside the robot itself is a router, which forms the basis for the network. The 'bot, which the team has, for simplicity's sake, begun calling the Node.js WiFi-Extending Robot (based on the programming language it uses to for communication) could have further applications, though WiFi extension seems one of the most logical, given the ease with which it drops off the little black cases.
The robot measures 40 inches long and 28 inches wide, weighing in at 150 pounds. In testing, the team has been able to get 12 hours on a charge (the repeaters, meanwhile, last around 30 hours) -- though obviously that will depend, in part, on what sort of terrain you're on. There's a Webcam on the front of the 'bot that can do night vision, and video can be viewed through a proprietary HTML5 web portal, which is used to control the device. The browser-based nature of the software means that you can access it through a computer or a mobile device. There's also GPS on board, so you can track the robot's progress as it rolls along. Landers opened the 'bot's body to reveal a small ASUS Eee netbook inside, running Ubuntu.
Even after the close of the Capstone competition, for which the robot was designed, the team continues to make changes to the beat, Landers telling us that he'd not slept the night prior, thanks to continued fiddling. There's a good deal of potential ahead, as well, including the cutouts in the front of the vehicle, which he compare to a Cylon Raider, that could potentially see extending mechanical instrumentation arms in the future. Landers puts the current build cost of the 'bot at around $1,500 to $2,000.