Thanks to microcontrollers and mini computers it’s become far easier to build intelligent robots. But, until recently, you’ve had to jury-rig most of your off-the-shelf components to work in unison. That’s why Rex, a new “robot brain” is so important. Like Hardware Battlefield finalist ModBot, Rex offers one important part of your robot project and streamlines the process of implementing intelligence into your robotic projects.
Created by former Carnegie Mellon Master’s students Mike Lewis and Kartik Tiwarti, Rex is a cross between a Raspberry Pi and an Arduino. Not unlike Udoo before it, Rex allows hobbyists to add powerful hardware control I/O to a powerful on-board processor without connecting multiple shields together with various tools.
“It’s designed specifically for robots,” said Lewis. “It’s a higher price than the RPi, but the experience of building a robot is less of a pain – no hassles for wiring, it has built-in battery inputs, and it boots up directly into a robot programming environment.”
The team is also offering online support and a fully featured help site for robot builders who are using their platform. The basic model starts at $99 for a fully-featured board with OS preloaded and a power supply. It also includes a serial cable. They are looking for $90,000 in pledges.
“Kartik and I knew we were both interested in consumer robotics and building things that could solve problems for regular people,” said Lewis. “Robotics is such a complicated field where the requirements for a system depend so much on what the system will be used for, that none of the platforms out there were really what I wanted, so I proposed that we attack this issue directly. As we continued to think about it, Rex seemed to make more and more sense for people who had already built Arduino-based robots but were having a difficult time stepping up to a more advanced platform.”
Interestingly, the team built their own OS, Alphalem OS, to run their boards and by building a developers platform right into the board they were able to offer a way to program your robot directly without uploading to a microcontroller. Most importantly these boards are about as big as an Arduino Uno, one of the smallest general-purpose micro controllers available. The board also includes a DSP and camera and microphone inputs, making it far more powerful for the robotics hobbyist and engineer.
The team isn’t stopping at basic motor controls, however.
“The OS will offer an easy-to-use development environment that is similar to Arduino’s ‘sketches’ and a task manager (MCP) that will allow you to launch multiple ‘sketch’-style processes in parallel for different tasks. It will have built-in drivers for devices that are useful for robots, like cameras and USB WiFi adapters. In the future, we will also be adding a layer for AI and Machine Learning applications.”
There’s also a motor kill switch in case your robot becomes sentient. In short, Rex has it all. It makes it easy to build great robot projects and, at about the same price as a few really nice stepper motors, the total cost isn’t very high. Now if only there were pneumatic controls so I could finally build my robotic soup taster.