Hormigas and the Interaction Lab in Hangar

Forgive my slight neglect of TMATM (though if you’ve been following me, I’m sure you’ve noticed that posting regularly is not my strong suit, though I try to be thorough and precise when I do post– i.e. the exact opposite of what matters in the blogging world!). Its been a rocky transition back to the States and I’ve also been overwhelmed by the news. (Where’s Gaddafi!? East Coast earthquake and hurricane!? Is Steve Jobs ok?! Why has 2011 been so eventful???!!!) Really, why has 2011 been so eventful?

Back to smaller (but no less interesting!) stuff.

Actually, its funny, I was giving a talk about my project several weeks ago and there was a time limit. I realized I only had two minutes left to talk, and I thought, instead of finishing the current topic and wrapping up, it would be more fun to try to squeeze in as much as possible, so I started talking faster and faster. Near the end of the talk, this picture came up on the slideshow:

And I only had time to yell breathlessly at a confused audience: andthen,inSpain,therewereGIANTroboticANTS!!

So, to finally explain, while I was volunteering in Hangar, I helped the engineers build the electronics for some giant robotic metal ants. (!) This is how I met Raúl Martinez, the nice and unassuming guy behind them.

His project, ferroluar, is a series of animals, built out of scrap and recycled metal. They move mechanically but their movement is very natural, and the animals seem uncannily lifelike; as he puts it, “organic movement reproduced with materials that at first could seem cold and inexpressive.” He only achieves this by using simple elements like gears and springs!

raul y miguel @ interaction lab, hangar

I asked Raul how he is able to recreate various movements. For example, each leg of the ant is welded at a different angle to a plate that rotates, which is a surprisingly simple solution that wields a surprisingly expressive result. But how to figure out the angle? He told me theres alot of trial and error, and sometimes he doesn’t know until he sees it– he painstakingly welds, tests, and re-welds until the part looks just right.

Another interesting thing to note is that he doesn’t paint the metal. Differences in tone are achieved by other techniques, such as oxidizing and texturing the metal.

bart and a headless robotic ant

In Hangar, I got to see the process of creating microcontroller boards for the sensors and the motors. With electronics, each ant has four IR sensors that make them capable of detecting and avoiding people and obstacles.

The Interaction Lab in Hangar is equipped to produce its own circuitboards, and so I got to see how this was done in a better-equipped lab (since I’ve only done this haphazardly or used perfboards… or I’ve been lazy and I don’t use a board at all…).

The design is transferred onto a light-sensitive board, and this is done by printing the design on translucent paper, lining it up, and setting it in a light box to be exposed.

making circuitboards @ hangar

Here, Miguel is putting the board in a corrosive bath, which only leaves the printed design on the board (unless you leave it in too long, and the design gets corroded away too).

miguel making circuitboards

The next step is drilling holes…

drilling circuitboards

… and then the board is ready for the components to be soldered on.

The ants in the lab, doing some (headless) testing of how the ants react to people and objects.


And finally , the hormigas working beautifully with all the details (red glowing eyes, pinchers biting)!

Also, for more, I ran across this nice article about Raul.

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