Bring your creations to life

By on April 30, 2018
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A kit for experimenting with electronics at any age by taking advantage of Arduino’s versatility and a well-equipped hardware section.

More and more, electronics and programming are approaching school and students, even younger students in these last years, based on the assumption that this will decrease the training time for those that are by now considered the guiding subjects of the future; this assumption is supported by the fact that electronics, and programmable electronics above all, is everywhere. From this perspective, programming languages such as Scratch were born along with learning kits that are getting more and more engaging, as it is the case for Itty Bitty City, a mCookie kit for eight experiments, with the ability to turn many ideas in tangible applications and free your creativity.

Every aspect of this program is thought for those who want to approach the electronics world and those who want to learn it in a simple and intuitive way, such as the children interested in this field, since it allows to acquire some base knowledge on Arduino and its functioning for controlling hardware (sensors and various types of devices), and they can be operational right from the beginning. Another advantage of Itty Bitty City is that we can build electronic projects without any wiring or soldering required, therefore without taking any risks including accidental electrocution.

 

 

All the projects proposed can be assembled by putting together the functional blocks composing them, which have a look and size factor (including the interlocking system) similar to the popular LEGO construction blocks; interlocking the blocks will both assembly the mechanic and the electric connection necessary since the contacts are already fittingly placed.

Modules are special magnetic blocks, each with different functions, which can be applied simply by piling them and can be electrically connected through spring contacts that allows to pressure-connect them. Finally, everything is handled through a modification of Arduino’s base software, called ArduinoIDE v1.6.7, containing a series of compatible libraries with the provided modules.







We have tested the Itty Bitty City kit for you and these are the components we have found inside the box:

  • a Core Module (RED) containing the brain and the logics which is basically a Microduino board based on Atmega328;
  • a Hub Module (GREEN) allowing to connect up to 12 sensors to the Core Module;
  • a Driver Module (GREEN) for 2 small DC motors;
  • a 850 mAh Li-on battery;
  • two microswitch, an infrared receiver, two gray sensors, a photoresistor, a microphone, a buzzer, two LEDs (multi-color).

 

 

There are also 12 accessories: two soft balls to use in the projects, 136 compatible LEGO blocks to build the supporting mechanics for the sensors or any mechanism, a USB – micro USB cable, 2 micro DC motors, a ball caster, and infrared remote control, a roll of duct tape, 16 colored cables for connecting the sensors, a USB drive with a PDF guide and Arduino IDE (software environment for programming and editing the code), two wheels, a manual with examples and the component list.

All the modules are structured just like LEGO blocks and they have different colors in order to intuitively tell one from the other.

The Core Module is the brain of the system and the one which will acquire the sensor signals and will send the command signals to the actuators based on how it is programmed in the various experiments; to be more specific, this brain is composed of a Microduino board, which is a really small Arduino board has the same microcontroller of the bigger boards of family but it is supporting an essential set of I/Os.

The above-mentioned hardware is supported by a good software section including:

  • definitions for various base modules;
  • code libraries for the series modules;
  • simple example codes to understand the interactions between modules (i.e. simple code for controlling a multicolor LED).

All the sensors (optical, acoustic, etc.) are inserted into thin blocks with two locking points that have the connectors for connecting them to the Hub Module on the backside.

 

 

Experiments

The kit guides you step-by-step throughout the creation of eight practical and documented experiments, which represent an opportunity to get to know the devices and the supporting components.

The heart will always be the Arduino-based block, which handles all the applications and it will be “attached” to the specific hardware each time.

The experiments proposed, corresponding to as many practical applications, are:

  • Piggy Bank: it produces a sound when the coin is inserted in a specific block that will be built using the gray sensors;
  • Reflex Battle: a reflex game based on the red module and two buttons;
  • 1 VS 1 Basket; a basket match employing the included ball and a block to be built by inserting a proximity sensor;
  • Windmill: it proposes the construction of a windmill which blades turn when you clap your hands;
  • Lighthouse: it turns the LED on and allows to change light color by using the included infrared remote control;
  • Music Box: by sliding one of the music cards (included in the box) into dedicated block you can hear the corresponding melody from a buzzer;
  • Nightlight: it automatically turns the LED on when the light is turned off;
  • Smart Car: it is a vehicle that can be follow a line or specific commands given by a remote control, and also detects obstacles.

 

 

All these examples can be found in the final section of the paper manual with a detailed visual representation of each passage which, in combination with the software, gives every beginner the possibility to understand how interactions between modules work. Let’s briefly analyze the experiments and the elements involved.

  • Piggy Bank makes use of a sensor called LINE FINDER which is able to detect shades of gray of the object put in front of it; the sensor is composed of a light emitter and a detector and based on the reflected intensity of the object, it determines its shade. The application uses, besides the Core Module, the hub and the gray sensor to be mounted in a bank-shaped structure made with construction blocks. 
  • Reflex Battle is made with the usual Core and Hub modules, to which you’re going to connect two button modules; whoever presses the button first wins and Microduino can detect it by counting the elapsed time. 
  • 1 VS 1 Basket is based on the usual Core and Hub modules and on the gray sensors inserted in a structure where you are going to introduce the provided ball, the structure can be assembled with the LEGO-like blocks. 
  • Windmill proposes a construction of a windmill using the usual blocks, by applying the blades to an electric motor block that will be wired to the Hub, from which the connection to the sound sensor starts, which is a block equipped with a microphone electret-condenser capsule; when the microphone detect sounds, it signal, read by an Analogic line of the Core Module, is analyzed and when the threshold and the bandwidth are within the thresholds set by the firmware, this powers the motor on, making the blades spin. 
  • Lighthouse is made using the Core and Hub modules and a block with the RGB LEDs; the remote control is read by a block containing the IR receiver and allows to change the color of the emitted light by using the included IR remote control. 
  • Music box is a suggestive and very peculiar application based, besides the usual Core and Hub modules, on a block containing the gray sensor and on special cards with a sort of black barcode printed on them which identifies a melody; by building a lead using the blocks (with one side being the gray sensor) and sliding the card inside it (so that the barcode faces the sensor) the buzzer block will play the series of note composing the melody. 
  • Nightlight is based, besides the usual Core and Hub modules, on a photoresistor contained in the LIGHT-A1 block which will be read by an analog line of Microduino; when brightness goes below the threshold level set by the firmware, the command lighting on one or two LED blocks is triggered. 
  • Smart Car is the juiciest application, that is why we chose to use it as a test for the kit; we will talk about it more extensively in the next paragraphs, in terms of construction and firmware.

 







 

In order to check its functioning, we simply ran a test to light a LED on at regular intervals using only battery, Core Module and Hub Module. In order to make everything work, we have written the code shown in List 1, to be loaded in Microduino, i.e. the Core Module, through the dedicated PC connection, and you have to have the provided IDE install on your computer, which contains two libraries for the elements used.

 

Our project: Smart car

The example we found to be more interesting and that we are going to propose in this article is the “Smartcar”, which is a small automobile built using the blocks from the kit, which can be controlled through three functions: the first allows the car to be remotely controlled, the second allows the car to drive itself autonomously using the gray sensors pointed towards the ground that let the car follow a line traced on the floor, and the third function is still an autonomous movement which works by detecting and avoiding obstacles along the track.

In the software, under the userDef.h section, you can modify intensity of the two frontal LEDs, rotational speed and overall speed.

Our Smartcar can be built using the following materials:

  • Battery;
  • 2 motors;
  • Microphone Block;
  • Core Module;
  • Hub Module;
  • Driver Module;
  • 2 Line Finder blocks;
  • IR Receiver Block;
  • Remote Control;
  • 2 LED Blocks;
  • BUZZER Block;
  • 2 Omnidirectional Wheels;
  • Wiring cables for connecting blocks and motors with the hub;
  • Double-sided Tape.

At first, this might seem the most complex project in the manual, however, thanks to the provided instructions, which are really intuitive, this wasn’t the case.

 

 

First, we have placed the 7 x 15 days by placing the blocks as shown the figure, which will be the chassis of the car.

Then, we have properly connected motors and sensors, taking care to respect the in/out pins, especially for the LEDs, which could not correctly function otherwise; all the elements connect using the dedicated cables (ending with the connectors) to the hub module except for the motors which connect to the driver module.

 

 

The hub module has been applied to the core module Block; after this passage and after connecting everything together, we have loaded the firmware and connected the core modules to the computer, launching the IDE (the programming software) to check the connections and functioning and of each single component.

Now we can move on to completing the construction, by placing battery, motors and modules as shown in figure.

 

 

The battery, as you can see, locks on the base and right aboe it we are going to place our modules.

Now, we can move on to build the shell of our Smartcar, and we are going to use the LEGO-like blocks included in the kit. In figure you can see the complete work.

 

 

This is the base vehicle, which moves by following the track on the floor.

In order to activate the “obstacle-avoiding” feature, we must add the gray sensors on the front side of the vehicle as shown in figure.

 

 

Conclusions

After our tests, we can conclude that this kit is really easy to use, fit to all ages and levels of experience and surely recommended to young and very young children at school: a gift idea to keep in mind for children, nephews, pupils…

We can say that the guide projects are really helpful in understanding the mechanics behind this innovative idea.

The ease of being able to build using simple LEGO blocks allows for an extremely wide array of customization, and nothing stops you from replacing modules and sensors with the expansions provided by the manufacturer.

 

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About Boris Landoni

Boris Landoni is the technical manager of Open-Electronics.org. Skilled in the GSM field, embraces the Open Source philosophy and its projects are available to the community.

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