BrickEngineer: LEGO Design

LEGO Engineering for LEGO NXT and Robot Enthusiasts

MATLAB Packages for the NXT

There are now several MATLAB packages for robotics, and specifically for the NXT.  One paradigm is to run the code on a PC and have it communicate direct commands to the NXT Brick via Bluetooth or USB.  I have found this paradigm to be a bit dangerous since in the event of a MATLAB crash or a miscommunication, the NXT Brick will continue with its last command until ordered to stop.  This has the potential to destroy your robot.  The paradigm that I prefer to use is to write several programs that run on the brick.  These programs take commands from files on the brick that can be uploaded rapidly from the PC.  The MATLAB code then is in charge of sending the command files and starting and stopping programs.  In the event of a MATLAB crash or communication failure, the software running on the NXT Brick can be designed to terminate gracefully.

Here are the MATLAB packages that I know of.  The first two are specifically geared toward the NXT; whereas the last is a general robotics package.

The Blossoming Lotus: LEGO Kinetic Art

I call this creation The Blossoming Lotus.  It was originally posted on Online Cortex, but I have decided to repost it here because its just plain fun. Basically it is a large 2D version of a Hoberman sphere. Why did I not make a large Hoberman sphere? First, the parts to make the circle cost almost $80 US. Second, I have other more pressing projects I am working on.

The Blossoming Lotus Kinetic Art

The Blossoming Lotus Kinetic Art

It is about 4 feet in diameter when completely extended and is pretty impressive. Its relatively easy to make. My design consists of constructing each petal with two interlocking pieces: a single-claw arm and a double-claw arm. The parts needed to make the two arms are illustrated below.

Parts for a Single Lotus Petal

Parts for a Single Lotus Petal

To make the entire circle of petals, one needs 20 copies of each petal. The job then is to put them all together. I will post detailed instructions on a website in the near future. For now, here is a closeup of the blossom when completed.

Close Up of the Lotus Blossom

Close Up of the Lotus Blossom

And of course, the project wouldn’t be complete without that animation above made with MLCAD, L3PAO, and POV Ray. The animation was straightforward—once you get the geometry right (which is not straightforward). I will post a lesson on the geometry and the animation of this creation in the future as well. For now, enjoy.

Knuth: Developing Robotic Scientists for Space Exploration

The University at Albany (SUNY) has highlighted Knuth’s research in a recent news piece.

UAlbany Professor Kevin Knuth with a robot built from LEGOs. (Photo Mark Schmidt)
UAlbany Professor Kevin Knuth with a robot built from LEGOs. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

Kevin Knuth has a laboratory in the physics department of the University at Albany that is filled with LEGOs. The bricks are relatively cheap and can be used to rapidly prototype a robot’s body. Knuth’s robots are being programmed to solve such problems as mapping complex terrain.

At UAlbany Day on Saturday, Oct. 25, he will give a demonstration on Robotics and Robotic Exploration in Life Sciences Room 143 at 10:45 a.m.

More here:

Building instructions for the robot shown in the UAlbany article can be found on

Visit Autonomous Exploration News for information on Knuth’s company Autonomous Exploration Inc.

Visit Robots Everywhere for a general blog on robotics news.

Little Rover with Instructions and Code


I have finally compiled building instructions for my Little Rover, which can be seen above in a 3D Rendering courtesy of POVRay.  An earlier version of this rover can be seen in this YouTube video:

Little Rover Prototype Video

Rover Design

The complete detailed building instructions can be found here in this 94-page pdf file.
Warning: it is about 9MB in size.  The design is not entirely compatible with the standard NXT Mindstorms Kit.  This design relies on two touch sensors, several 1×9 bent liftarms, and as far as I can tell from Peeron, the NXT Kit has only two.  This may require a little redesign.  Other compatibility issues and their solutions can be found in the Parts List in the instructions.

Remember to download the software DriveSmart here as well.
Installation instructions can be found in the zip file.

DriveSmart Code

The main file is called DriveSmart.rbt.  Drive Smart runs four threads:

Drive Thread
The Drive Thread (lowest one of the four) drives until a warning flag is set by one of the other
threads. It then waits until it gets an all clear message via the Wait Until Free block, and then
it starts driving again.

Bumper Threads
There are two threads that monitor the bumpers.
The reaction is only activated if nothing else is currently commanding the robot.  In this case the
bumper has been pressed and the robot will veer away from the hazard.

Ultrasound Thread
This thread monitors the ultrasound rangefinder.
The reaction is only activated if nothing else is currently commanding the robot.  When the robot
comes too close to a hazard, the robot is commanded to stop.  It then looks both ways and then turns
in the direction with more room.  If the robot is within 10 cm of a hazard on both sides, it then
backs up.

The robot can roam about a wide variety of rooms and not get stuck.
He does not detect stairs though!  So be careful.

Download: instructions and code.

Kevin Knuth

LEGO NXT Motor Wiring

After posting Hacking the LEGO Mindstorms NXT Standard Motor, I received several requests for more information regarding the wiring of the motor.

The NXT cable has six wires. Below I list a table with the wires and their colors:

Color Name
White Motor 1
Black Motor 2
Green 4.3 Volts
Yellow Tach01
Blue Tach02

The WHITE and BLACK wires (Motor 1 and Motor 2) deliver power to the motor.
If standard batteries are used, the potential difference will be 9 volts, otherwise the NiMH rechargeable batteries provide 7.2 volts. If the white wire is positive and black is negative, the motor will turn one way. If you reverse the polarity, the motor will turn the other way.

The RED wire is connected to the ground (GND). Note that in the sensors, RED and BLACK are connected to one another. This is not the case in the motors.

The GREEN wire is connected to the +4.3 NXT power supply.

The YELLOW and BLUE wires are connected to the quadrature encoder, also called an incremental rotary encoder.

Basic Rotary Encoder

Square waves from quadrature encoder

As shown in the figure from Wikipedia above, ( the wires return square wave pulses that are 90 degrees out of phase. If the rising pulse on TACH00 leads the rising pulse of TACH01 by 90 degrees, then the motor is going forward. If it instead lags by 90 degrees, the motor is rotating backwards. One complete square wave cycle corresponds to 2 degrees of rotation. In the diagram above, if TACH00 refers to A and TACH01 refers to B, we can see that the motor is going backwards as TACH00 is lagging TACH 01.

By measuring the frequency of the square wave oscillation, one can compute the rotational velocity. Since one cycle corresponds to 2 degrees of rotation, one cycle per second (1 Hz) corresponds to 2 degrees/sec. If you record a frequency of X Hz, then the rotation rate is 2X cycles/sec.

Note also that by tracking both square waves, you can identify quarter cycles, which gives you a resolution of 1/4 of 2 degrees, which is 0.5 degrees.

The motor speed is controlled by pulse-width modulation (pwm), which works by driving the motor with a variable duty cycle square wave. This effectively turns the motor on and off, fast. The longer it is on, the more torque it will generate and the faster it will go.

These details and more can be found in the excellent book: Extreme: NXT with a sneak peak here.

Additional details can be found in the excellent book Extreme NXT: Extending the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT to the Next Level (Technology in Action) by Michael Gasperi, Philippe E. Hurbain, and Isabelle L. Hurbain.

Philo uploaded a comment, and reminded me that “Note that there are some internal photos of the NXT motor here: and schematics here:

Happy Hacking!

Basic Electronics Supplies for Beginners

I am getting interested in more general robotics projects, but will still be relying on LEGOs for their construction.  The LEGO brick is a bit too limited with its specialized programming languages and limited sensor and motor ports.

So for those interested in some LEGO electronics hacking, here is a list of supplies that will get you up and running fast for about $275… just a but more than the cost of a single Mindstorms kit.  Plus you’ll now get to learn electronics!

First, check out the book:
Making Things Talk: Practical Methods for Connecting Physical Objects

This book explains how to wire, program and interconnect various microcontrollers, some of which are very closely related to those used by the NXT Brick.

Supply List

Item Number Description Quantity Unit Price Total
  Making Things Talk 1  $19.79 $19.79
19166 Desoldering Pump 1 $4.95 $4.95
159291 Wire Stripper 1 $10.15 $10.15
161411 Diagonal Cutter 1 $7.49 $7.49
35474 Needlenose Pliers 1 $5.49 $5.49
127271 Mini Screwdriver 1 $1.89 $1.89
681002 Helping Hands 1 $8.75 $8.75
159611 Power Connector 2 $1.79 $3.58
10444 Alligator Test Clip Leads 2 $4.39 $8.78
103377 Header Pins 10 $0.16 $1.60
119011 Push Button (PCB Type) 10 $0.27 $2.70
29082 Potentiometer 2 $1.05 $2.10
242115 LM1117T-3.3 Voltage Regulator 3 $1.39 $4.17
51262 7805T 5v Voltage regulator 3 $0.32 $0.96
38236 2N2222A Transistor NPN 5 $0.41 $2.05
32993 TIP120 Power Transistor 5 $0.45 $2.25
643488 3.3V Zener Diode 5 $0.03 $0.16
35991 1N4004 Diode 5 $0.04 $0.20
152792 LED Yellow 10 $0.17 $1.70
152805 LED Red 10 $0.21 $2.10
153139 LED Orange 10 $0.35 $3.50
156962 LED Green (567 nm) 10 $0.20 $2.00
334529 LED Bargraph Red 1 $1.31 $1.31
334537 LED Bargraph Yellow 1 $1.23 $1.23
334511 LED Bargraph Green 1 $1.28 $1.28
17187 7-segment LED Display 3 $0.88 $2.64
38818 4-switch DIP 4 $0.48 $1.92
38842 8-switch DIP 2 $0.89 $1.78
103166 Resistor Refill 1 $12.95 $12.95
15270 0.1 uF 10 $0.15 $1.53
94161 1 uF 10 $0.12 $1.20
29891 10 uF 10 $0.06 $0.60
158394 100 uF 10 $0.11 $1.08
4443 TE Solderless Breadboard 1 $4.95 $4.95
4447 TE Large Solderless Breadboard 1 $22.95 $22.95
7027 TE Jumpers 2 $3.95 $7.90
14213 TE Digital Multimeter 1 $14.95 $14.95
15860 TL Mini Soldering Station 1 $14.95 $14.95
Wiring Platform DEV-00744 1 $84.95 $84.95
Radio Shack
64-025 Lead Free Solder 1 $3.89 $3.89

Note that the light gray items are optional, and not necessary.

Also, this list does not include some sort of power supply. Pulling one out of an old computer is an easy option. Or rechargeable batteries work well too (in which case you will need battery holders).

Last, there are special items in the book Making Things Talk that you may decide to purchase separately, such as flex sensors, or bluetooth boards, etc.

You can store your electronics in much the same way you store your small LEGO parts. Check out the article on Storage.

Enjoy Hacking!

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